Art therapy programme in Hong Kong helps patients with mental illness

An exhibition gives a glimpse into the minds of people suffering from mental illness; the results on canvas are imaginative and evocative

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2012, 12:22pm

Glimpsing into a mind troubled by mental illness may sound difficult, but an art therapy programme by the University of Hong Kong has opened a window into the hearts and minds of people with such a condition.

The results, painted on canvas, are imaginative and evocative: a house under sunny skies, musical notes sprouting angel's wings and a fiery red dragon. The paintings are in an exhibition called "A Season of Art and Mental Health Awareness", which is touring several venues in Hong Kong.

The art programme and exhibition are the brainchild of Dr Jordan Potash, of the University of Hong Kong's Centre on Behavioural Health.

He organised them for people suffering from mental illnesses including depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.

"Art therapy gives us a chance to express our depression" and to show viewers that those struggling with mental illness are regular people who can be related to, he said. This helps to ease patients' sense of being stigmatised by society.

Potash gave 10 sessions of art therapy to two classes of people with mental illness through the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals - with funds from the Public Policy Research Funding Scheme because of its potential to help guide government policies.

Many visitors to the exhibition expect to see sad images reflecting the symptoms of mental illness, Potash said.

"We tend to group people under labels, but we forget that they are whole people. What you'll notice with the artwork is that some pieces are about dreams and happy memories."

One participant was Joe Chan Lok-kwan, 42, a part-time newspaper vendor. Married with a seven-year-old daughter, he was diagnosed with depression five years ago. But for the previous 20 years, he had been troubled by symptoms including insomnia, lack of appetite and energy, moodiness, bad temper and physical weakness.

"It was pressure from my marriage, my job and having an unstable income," said Chan. "I realised I felt inhibited because everything I've ever done has been for my family, and I'd lost all sense of individuality."

In the art therapy sessions, he painted a phoenix to symbolise his rebirth. Then he painted the fiery red dragon to show his new mindset - a focus on his own needs and desires.

Chan drew a pearl next to the dragon, to remind himself that his child is his motivation to live positively.

The art therapy exhibition is showing at Ma On Shan Plaza until tomorrow. It will be on display at Fortune Metropolis in Hung Hom from Friday until next Wednesday, then the Academy of Performing Arts in Wan Chai on November 19-25.