We are experiencing more anxiety and depression and being overwhelmed than ever, but in a quiet room in Phillipstown, Ōtautahi, artist Caitlin shapes sunflowers out of clay. As more meds are prescribed around the country and as waitlists for counsellors get longer, she has a place of solace.

Caitlin belongs to Ōtautahi Creative Spaces, a community of people tackling mental distress in a different way. Tucked into a cluster of old school classrooms, it is a place of quiet focus, gentle smiles and steaming cups of tea. It’s a community art studio, dedicated to using creativity as a tool for mental distress, and Caitlin comes several times a week. Sunflowers carry a lot of meaning for her. “They’re really big and they’re really beautiful, but they still need support,”.

Creative Spaces is, according to founder Kim Morton, an alternative to what’s on offer for those struggling the most with their mental health. “The mental health system relies heavily on medications and counselling,” says Kim, who founded the service in 2015. “What we’ve learnt is that people need more than that.” While these things are really important, she explains, they help people to survive – they’re not really enough to help people thrive.

Instead, Kim’s approach taps into the power of art and creativity. Held in the Phillipstown Community Hub (formerly Phillipstown Primary School), the charity offers a weekly schedule of workshops for artists who have been connected through the mental health services. There are instructed courses like pottery and printmaking, as well as unstructured sessions where artists can work in their modality of choice.

“What we’re trying to do here is uncover the world of creativity and play, and find joy in simple creative processes,” says Kim, who previously worked as a community lawyer. She saw a need in Christchurch after the earthquakes to offer something different in the way of mental health support, and went for it.

The Unleashed session, on a Thursday afternoon, sees mostly young people between 18 and 25 – one of whom is Caitlin. “It helps me to channel everything that’s going on in my life. It makes a really big difference,” she says of the sessions. Caitlin has sunflowers on the go in both pottery and printmaking projects.

For Kim, it’s the changes in people, big and small, which keep her going. “The word that comes to mind is transformation,” she says. “When people first come here, they are often cautious and anxious, and very quickly once they’ve settled, once they feel a sense of belonging, they take on amazing challenges.” For many, that means going on to paid work or study.

So what is the magic link between creativity and a sense of well-being? Kim muses that the flow state, which can arise from deep focus, probably has something to do with it – as does working with one’s hands. For facilitator and team leader Henni Read, who first came to Creative Spaces as an artist, connection is a big contributor. “The community part here is just as important as the creativity,” she says. “That emphasis on creating together and having people around.”

It’s the antidote to a culture in which, as Unleashed artist Isaac points out, connection can be harder and harder to come by. “I think as society becomes less of a community and more industrial,” he says, “it makes people feel more disconnected.”

If there’s growing isolation, the pandemic has only added to this. So, for artists who can’t physically make it into the hub, the team sends out studio suitcases with art-making supplies, instructions and chamomile tea. “The idea is that, wherever you are, you can keep creating,” says Kim, who has a big vision beyond Phillipstown.

“We’ve actually just got to reimagine the mental health system, and focus on wider opportunities than just medication and counselling,” she says. “We’d like to have health professionals have more options…we’d really love to see them be able to prescribe art and creativity to help their patients.”

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