'What we feel within and dare make real…'

Alex Sayers on her social enterprise working with young care leavers.

In 2016, I co-founded Element, a social enterprise that produces creative arts projects with young people leaving the care system, and at-risk school students. Our work is heavily based on group delivery in physical spaces. As soon as lockdown was announced, we rapidly consulted our network. We run projects with young people from 11-21 years of age: many have experienced developmental disruption, mental ill health, and critical social isolation (Stein, 2012; Red Cross, 2016). Designing enjoyable, bespoke and creative content seemed not only the best option for the expertise within our team, but a valuable way to maintain connection with Element Young Creatives, and support their positive identity formation (Hyde & Atkinson, 2019; Eccles, 2009).  

NHS, now - by Shire, Element Young Creative

And so we set up daily creative challenges, to be done quickly or expansively, and shared within a group of peers and co-creators. We have switched our creative drop-in to a weekly online session filled with games and collective art making. We have introduced a culture club, where we e-meet to discuss pieces of culture that have been made available online. We run a weekly stretching and breathing session for participants to share their own techniques for promoting physical and mental wellness.

What I’ve seen, in running this adapted service, is that the process of making art is a way to take notice of what is going on both externally and internally. It instils a sense of personal agency, gently encourages self-expression, and de-escalates noisy thoughts. When taken within the framework of arts-informed research, it is not surprising that we have seen these results, evidencing Eisner’s thesis that “Art helps us connect with personal, subjective emotions, and through such a process, it enables us to discover our own interior landscape” (Eisner, 2008). 

Respect all doctors - by Mikias, Element Young Creative

Hearing the young people we work with describe the incredible artwork they have made – from the asylum-seeking young man depicting doctors as the modern-day Atlas holding up the world; to the care leaver who described her beautiful ink patterns as a way to bring order to a chaotic time; to the student using art to process and promote her feelings around recent tragic events [e.g. see main image, "One Love" by Dani, Element Young Creative] – makes me think of the luminary writer Audre Lorde’s definition of poetry as a means to “formulate the implications of ourselves, what we feel within and dare make real” (Lorde, 1984).

Finding order in the chaos - by Lucy, Element Young Creative 

I would like to suggest (with my fingers and toes crossed that the great Lorde will not be turning in her grave) that “poetry” might be replaced with “art” more generally. Lorde argues that art is the purest and simplest way to recognise – and then prioritise – our feelings and that it is these feelings that provide clarity for action. She insists this this prioritisation is a necessity and not a luxury: as radical a thesis now as it was then. 

Or is it? “Now” has taken on a very different tinge in the past two months: we can no longer take “now” as meaning This Current Age; somewhere between, say, 2016 and 2020. “Now” has got its frighteningly accurate currency back, it no longer accepts such broad, assumptive brush strokes. “Now” has brought deep trouble to our brilliant health and social services. It has ripped open any mundane sort of stability this country was settling into and left all of us in states of being that our minds and bodies have likely not dealt with before.

Just keep swimming -  by Tamara, Element Young Creative 

But humans are resilient creatures. Amongst the terrible tragedies and sacrifices, we have stopped and taken notice. We may have marvelled at the plump pink blossoming of a tree that was bare only a week before; or dusted off colourful cookbooks and experimented in the kitchen. Maybe we’ve even opened a long-forgotten sketchbook, and captured the delicate formation of a moody sky. In a time when nothing seems certain, we have allowed this creativity to nurture our sense of wellbeing, embracing a practice that many studies have shown to be enduringly effective (Fancourt, 2017; Gordon-Nesbitt, 2015). 

“Now”, when I talk to friends, family, organisations and clients about Element’s work during this time, it is immediately seen as logical, rational, needed. Where previously – and particularly in professional settings – my colleagues and I have had to push for the importance of the arts in boosting wellbeing and increasing engagement, now these statements are more easily welcomed. Could a possible side-effect of Covid-19 be that creative support begins to sit proudly alongside other forms of support, complementing the essential work of our public services? For one thing is certain: if inclusive creativity has been valuable in this current crisis, it is going to be utterly invaluable during the transition phase into “normality”. 

Sad, joy, calm, bright - by Olivia, Element Young Creative

Nowhere will this be more apparent than with vulnerable children and young people, whose experiences of transitions – through multiple placement moves, rapid changing of involved professionals, and abrupt switches from child to adult services (Dixon 2008; Department for Education, 2018) – may already differ radically from those of their peers (Ward, 2011; Biggart & Walther, 2006; Rogers, 2011). For these young people, lockdown has been one new challenge to add to the pile, a challenge that may well serve to exacerbate their pre-lockdown realities, that already for care leavers mean significantly higher likelihood of mental health issues and conduct disorders than young people more generally (McCauley & Davis, 2009; Dixon et al., 2006). How they progress into post-lockdown will depend on the support that they have been given, and the resources they have to lean on. If creative practice is part of this wider support package, the benefits may be seen not only for these artistic, opinionated and imaginative young people, but also for society at large. For who loses out in a creative community? 

- Alex Sayers is a member of the British Psychological Society. 'My Psychology journey is near to its very beginning: I completed an MSc in the Psychology of Education last year and have ambitions to train as an Educational Psychologist one day.' 

Different day, different face - by Elo, Element team 


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Red Cross (2016). Trapped in a bubble: an investigation into triggers for loneliness in the UK

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