Chas de Swiet, CEO of Sound Minds talks to us for World Mental Health Day

This World Mental Health Day, Tuesday 10 October, Chas de Swiet, CEO of Sound Minds talks to us about how mental health is being recognised in Britain as well as Sound Minds’ plans as a National Portfolio Organisation.

Sound Minds is a Battersea based mental health charity that transforms lives through music, film and art. They work with people with lived experience of mental health problems and are a safe space for their members, volunteers and staff.  As part of Wandsworth Council’s programme of Arts for Health & Wellbeing, Sound Minds are being supported to engage with new participants experiencing mental distress by expanding the provision of visual art workshops with an additional weekly afternoon session.

And so World Mental Health Day is upon us again on 10th October. The theme for 2023, set by the World Foundation of Mental Health, is ‘Mental health is a universal human right’. 

Interestingly Article 2 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights had no mention of disability or mental health:

‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.’

Is this right recognised in contemporary British society?

I have been a mental health service user for 30 years and although there is still widespread stigma and discrimination towards people with mental health problems the situation has improved massively. There have been some landmark moments such as the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act which made it illegal to discriminate against disabled people in connection with employment and the provision of goods and services. The London 2012 Paralympic Games also created a big shift in attitudes towards disabled people, and arguably to some extent towards people with lived experience of mental health problems. 

There has also been the positive action of individuals and organisations over the decades which include both the mainstream mental health charities but also smaller and more radical user led organisations such as the Mental Patients’ Union, Survivors Poetry, Mad Pride and Creative Routes. Many of these organisations also worked with the arts to bring about positive change.

Sound Minds is all about providing excellent music and art activity, and peer support, to our members, many of whom have serious mental illness. Hopefully however, over the last 30 years that the organisation has existed, we have also made a contribution to the bigger picture. Our mission is to offer a safe and sociable environment where people with lived experience of mental health problems find support from understanding peers, renew aspirations and grow self-esteem and we are stimulated and empowered to express ourselves artistically. Our staff and volunteers in their turn draw strength from this environment to enhance their own creativity and that of those around them.

We are a user-led charity, so our members run the organisation, and the majority of our trustees and senior management team have lived experience themselves.

We don’t provide music or art therapy in itself but believe profoundly that taking part in creative activity increases wellbeing, improves recovery journeys and turns lives around.  

Looking at where we are now there are some real positives such as young people feeling more comfortable talking about their mental health. Mental health services are also less coercive and with new and better medications that have less side effects. There are however still some problems.

People from BAME backgrounds are over represented in the mental health services in Wandsworth but have limited influence in what those services look like. They also have limited real informed choice of what services to use.

According to the 2011 census 22% of the Wandsworth population were from BAME backgrounds. In comparison the percentage of BAME service users for Sound Minds as a whole remains at 61%. The Mental Health Foundation reports that nationally black people are four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act than white people.

Where does this place Sound Minds? We will continue to consider the wider situation but deliver activity that people want to use on a local level. It is about creating a space that is free, safe, supportive, user-led and non-judgemental. We will remember that there’s a big difference between being not-racist and being anti-racist.

We have recently been given National Portfolio Organisation status by Arts Council England, this means that we receive arts funding over a number of years and is a vote of confidence in the quality of the arts activity that we provide. We can explore more deeply into what the arts represents for our members. How do we innovate to support our members’ artistic practice? This could be around training, education, professional opportunities, showcasing and increasing profile. It is also about working in partnership with the local community. We have a new Creative Development Worker (Jack Earp) in post and his role is to work with other organisations to widen out opportunities for our members and provide onward pathways.  There are already lots of chances to be involved, such as the Community Choir led by Searahlaine St James which is open to everyone.

There is also an opportunity for Sound Minds as an organisation to consider how we position ourselves. We have been situated within the arts in health sector, and this is not going to change, but there are also possibilities for our members to engage more in the Disability Arts sector. Disability Arts was traditionally about producing art about the experience of being disabled but is now a much wider and flourishing scene with a very diverse range of artists producing great work. It also provides a possible route to paid work and professional opportunities.

Sound Minds will always take a holistic approach to working with our members. The charity takes its lead from the needs and aspirations of its service users and this is how our Canerows peer support services came about in 2008. Canerows is led by our amazing Mia Morris OBE and now includes a one day per week user led drop in, post discharge peer support and a comprehensive ward visiting service. It is interesting to think how we might expand more beyond the arts whilst remaining true to our ideals.

World Mental Health Day is useful to a certain extent as it raises awareness but it has to be part of an ongoing process of hard work to truly give people with experience of mental health problems the rights that they deserve.

If you are interested in getting involved with the work of Sound Minds, or in referring someone else, then check out our website.