Investing in volunteers is a winner!

Arty-Folks are awarded the quality mark ‘Investors in Volunteering’ by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations after demonstrating best practice in all aspects of working with our volunteers.   We are so proud of our team of amazing volunteers who worked with us to achieve this award for excellent volunteer management. 

Arty-Folks volunteers past and present who support us as Trustees, Advisors, and Peer Volunteers and we were also joined by representatives of our funders Lloyds Bank Foundation, Heart of England Foundation, and People’s Health Trust.

Peter Smith, assessor NCVO: “Arty-Folks commitment to volunteering being a two way process was brought out in my interviews with all volunteers.  Staff and volunteers have a shared understanding and there is a strong sense throughout the charity that you’re moving forward as a team for the benefit of your service users.“

Dan Sharkey, Digital Coach, Lloyds Bank Foundation: ” I am proud to be a part of Arty-Folks’ journey. The charity does so much for mental health in Coventry and this award is very much deserved.”

Lorella with Beryl Van Wijgerden who was Arty-Folks’ very first volunteer and who went on to complete an Art Foundation course in her 70’s. Now nearing 90, she is still volunteering in the community.

Clef King (left) peer volunteer at Making Headway, our young people group. Anisha Sidhu (middle) is leaving her volunteering and is starting Art Foundation at Coventry University. Mel Calliste-Ozen (right) used to volunteer in the office and now enjoys working as a barista. Through Volunteering our service users are able to recognise that their illness does not define them – they have skills, personal qualities, and life experiences through which they can help others.

Four members of our hugely supportive Board of Trustees, from left to right:
John Gough, Chair since 2013
Ian MacFarlane-Toms, Treasurer
Barnie Giltrap, IT specialist
David Howitt, Company Secretary

Many of our volunteers have completed Improving Lives, an 8 week course with Voluntary Action Coventry that prepared them well for their role. Above, Lorella and Francesca, Supported Volunteering Officer at Voluntary Action Coventry working together and getting stuck in!

Francesca: “Improving Lives really seeks to increase the confidence, self-esteem and prospects of those who take part. We raise awareness of all of the amazing opportunities there are in Coventry for personal and professional development and to make a difference in the community for those willing to give their time to local charities. Volunteers coming through the course are reporting marked increases in motivation and self-belief, and are ready to offer their commitment in a meaningful way, both for themselves and for the benefit of third sector organisations.”

Lorella Medici, manager and founding member: “After all these years and more ups and downs and twists and turns that I could possibly remember, I am still in awe and admiration of everyone who has pulled through and are soldiering on like our Mel and Bally. Yes, I will always call them ‘ours’ because even though they have moved on our door remains open and they will always be members of our Arty-Folks family.”

Lorella being emosh with Mel (left) and a bit freaky with Bally (right).

Lorella: “The Investors in Volunteering Award is a recognition of the enormous contribution our volunteers have made with their time, commitment, passion, and expertise that has enabled Arty-Folks to offer an uninterrupted service since 1996 on a shoestring budget.

On behalf of our staff team Liz, Laura, Karen and myself – THANK YOU!”

Arty-Folks receives £20k European Social Funds Community Grant to develop New Perspectives

At Arty-Folks we believe that everyone, irrespective of circumstance, deserves to be given the best chance of leading a fulfilled, healthy, economically active life, and to be empowered to reach their potential.  We are delighted Groundwork in Coventry & Warwickshire awarded us £20,000 ESF funds to run New Perspectives, a 6 months project to help our most vulnerable and socially excluded members move closer to their chosen goals.

Many of our members are struggling with significant health needs that place them furthest from the labour market and as a result they suffer social exclusion, poverty and discrimination.  Sadly, the employment rate of people with common mental health problems has continued to be far lower than the general population (43% compared to 74%).  We know that economic inactivity also has a huge impact on self-esteem, general health and well-being, and on the persons’ hope for a better future! 

Our New Perspectives staff team is best placed to understand the often unique and complex barriers which deter and prevent our members from engaging in employment focused programmes.

Liz Harvey, art workshops, supports members to increase social confidence and skills for studying and employment, and to build a personal art portfolio to access further creative education.  “Art allows us to connect to other people in a positive and personal way.  It helps us recognise our uniqueness whilst also enabling us to bond with like-minded people.  That’s when healing begins.”

Lorella Medici, mentor, supports members to explore what is hindering their success and to identify realistic and achievable plans moving forward.  “Sometimes we need a bit of help to break down what seems an insurmountable barrier into manageable and removable chunks.  There is always a way forward but sometimes we get so frustrated we can’t see the wood for the trees.”

Laura Wilde, support worker, helps members into education.  She offers 1:1 support to apply and enrol on their chosen courses, to ensure all requirements for entry are met, prepares them for entry exams and interviews, and supports them to get used to studying, how to take notes and write essays, etc.  “Studying should be exciting and enjoyable but I know from personal experience how taxing academia can be and how important it is to maintain a good balance between studying and personal life.”

Karen Lewis, support worker, helps members into employment.  She offers 1:1 support to write CV’s, access employment training, online searches, job applications, interviews, etc. and continues to support them until they feel confident in their new role.  Karen also organises group outings and helps people to try other opportunities to increase health and well-being and feel more confident being out and about in the community.  “I absolutely love being a mum but I am also a person in my own right. I know what it’s like to struggle with a lack of self-confidence and self-worth and how quickly it can mean you retreat from the outside world and stop engaging with the wonderful things happening around you.”

New Perspectives offers a safe space where a circle of supportive peers, staff and volunteers will help members ‘normalise’ and make sense of their experiences.  Our team will go the extra mile to help members regain self-belief, take control of their personal journey to recovery, and take steps towards chosen career paths.  New Perspectives will have a significant positive impact on members’ emotional, physical, social and economic situation, and will restore their self-belief and confidence to succeed in life.

ESF Community Grants are funded by the European Social Fund (ESF) and the Education and Skills Funding Agency, and are being managed by Groundwork in Coventry & Warwickshire with support from local Groundwork Trusts.  ESF Community Grants up to £20,000 are for local initiatives such as Arty-Folks that can help disadvantaged people towards employment, training or education.   

Pour and Flow – Exhibition

We have not exhibited for a while and we are so excited to show these amazing acrylic paintings by our members for Mental Health Awareness Week 2019.

The theme set by the Mental Health Foundation this year is body image, how we feel and think about our bodies. At Arty-Folks we have explored this in a positive way by using paints in an organic way and that helps us connect body and mind.

We added different mediums to acrylics to create chance effects when pouring onto canvas and to enable more flow. This process required a body and mind alignment which we experienced as energising and uplifting, and yes the results were stunning and surprising.

We then took a small section as inspiration for a second painting that tapped into our childhood imagination. But to see those you need to visit the exhibition!

Arty-Folks working towards Investing in Volunteers accreditation

We have just started to work towards the quality standard Investing in Volunteers (IiV) that will improve the effectiveness of our work with volunteers and will assure them of our ability to provide an outstanding volunteer experience.

Over 300 people have volunteered their time for Arty-Folks since we started our first art group in April 1996. We are most grateful for their unpaid time, commitment, passion, and invaluable expertise that has helped Arty-Folks grow into a unique charity that provides an evidence-based approach to mental well-being through the visual arts.

Investing in Volunteers has been designed to be an effective and rigorous process to ensure a win-win: our volunteers receive the best possible management support and Arty-Folks receives maximum benefit from our volunteers’ involvement.

Today, volunteers serve on the Board of Trustees where strategic decisions are made, and advisers on the Operations Group assists our small staff team to realise our ambitious plans for the future. We are always looking for advisers with specific skills and expertise and if you are interested in volunteering with us please email your CV to

Peer Volunteers work alongside our staff team and undertake a huge range of tasks at art workshops such as meeting and greeting new service users, serving refreshments, assisting staff with the delivery of activities, supporting staff with the induction process of new service users and helping newcomers to relax and enjoy the process of being creative.

Arty-Folks Peer Volunteers who have grown through the service become role models to recovery as they inspire others by sharing their own journey and by being open about their experiences they instil hope for a better future.

At art workshops with service users Arty-Folks offers volunteering opportunities only to our own service users who have grown through the service and to Coventry University art students.

We offer placements to 2nd year Fine Art students at Coventry University with a wide range of creative skills and who wish to explore working in a community setting.  Art students can boost their employability and gain invaluable insight into how the visual arts can support people to rebuild their lives.  We only consider applications received through CUSU

Eilish Lenihan, 2nd year Fine Art student at Coventry University, and a wonderful volunteer.
Arty-Folks Investors in Volunteering accreditation is funded by the Lloyds Bank Foundation

“My thoughts about Arty-Folks” by K.L.

I have been a member of Making Way group for 2 months now and the process of creating in this most advanced group is very different. The way these sessions are structured ensures you pay dedicated, focused, constructive attention to your worries (and have the confidence to do so) and also provides respite from them, in the right balance.

Given deep seated complex feelings that are hard to voice, a tangible form that I can experience outside of my body; a form of release. This has shown me that it is possible to view and observe these feelings without the disabling grip of negative physical sensation and thought. Over time they have become clearer and easier to face, communicate and understand.

anger expressed by K.L., colour pencils and markers

The variety of projects and materials and the method and nature in which they are used, has reinforced the message and mindset that there is more than one approach or solution to tackling your situation. It has helped me break free from stuck thought patterns and see from new perspectives. Easing the fear of trying something new has built confidence, encouraging me out of comfort zones.

Arty-Folks has given me the determination and motivation to move myself forward, by providing great insight and knowledge on the subject of mental health. Each week has focused on a different aspect. This in hand with the accompanying art exercise then helps you to feel more comfortable in holding the reins, steering on your own personal journey; making choices, problem solving, gaining control, learning to let go; at a pace that is right for you. You are literally, shaping things for yourself. It’s very rewarding to see your own progress in such a visual way.

The discussion element at the start of each session followed by a ‘creative action’ gave me a sense that I could take real steps to doing something about the way I feel; how I react. Engagement in a practical activity helped free my flow of thought and was incredibly cathartic.

work in progress by K.L., mixed media

The open discussion of each others work also hits home ‘you are not alone’, brings awareness and understanding of how we each experience things and that whatever your situation you can make a difference and be of great support to someone else. Learning to interpret the work we produced helped me explore my inner self in a non-judgmental way and analyze my own thoughts, feelings and behaviours. It was empowering.

The Workshops provide a supportive, safe, inviting space where you can comfortably and freely open up and share experiences and information with peers, but still maintain privacy. This is a great connection when you feel isolated. Arty-Folks have also been good at providing information on additional local groups/ classes and resources that might help and by introducing activities such as yoga and meditation to the group to try.

follow your heart by K.L. ceramics

Arty-Folks provided me with a toolkit, that I could take with me and apply independently to my everyday. It has proven to me that we can find comfort in ways that are healthy; that in time you can find the resilience within you to lean into overwhelming problems, face them, with the right resources tread the path to overcoming them and find healing.

C.K. “A typical NEETS”

I am lazy, obese, uncooperative, irresponsible, a typical workshy NEETS (Not in Employment Education Training or Studying).  I am sure that’s what my GP thinks.  He won’t consider looking at my mental health until I comply and take medication for an underactive thyroid.   Like most adults he doesn’t listen and I don’t trust the medical profession anyway because I believe they are to blame I became orphaned at 18.

I will always remember the night before saying to her “you want me to be a girly girl like Hannah Montana but I am more a tomboy like Lily” and she smiled, she looked happy.  My mum was funny.  She smoked a fair bit but drank rarely.  She always wanted me to tickle and massage her feet.  My dad always blamed me if something went wrong and she wouldn’t argue with him, she would just calmly stick up for me. I think she had been a grave digger at one point.  She loved the Bay City Rollers and Priscilla Queen of the desert.

I woke up to the sound of my half-brother screaming my mums’ name.  She had complained to the doctors that she had pins and needles down one side and they did lots of test and scans but I don’t think they took it seriously.  She had a brain haemorrhage at 5am in the morning in the bathroom in front of the sink.  We waited for the ambulance and for dad to return from work, and we just knew that nothing was ever going to be OK.  I don’t really know what happened after that.  Mum was my safety and now it was all gone one November day.

All these people coming round saying I am so sorry, staying for a bit and then leaving again.  I was in a terrible state, everything bubbled up.   I just remember sitting there numb, staring into empty space.  I remember constantly having these vivid dreams my mum coming back to live again, then not knowing where she worry when she would die again. It’s been nearly 10 years now and not much has changed.

My dad was a lot different afterwards.  We all were. He pottered on but drank a lot more.  He already had an operation for throat cancer but then it came back with other cancers.  He died within a couple of weeks of diagnosis and I don’t know who was there when he died.  I went to see him but I couldn’t say goodbye to him.  Later I went into my bedroom and I scraped my wrist for ages, it was just a way of bringing me back to reality and help me deal with my anger and sadness. The scar reminds me that whatever I am going through now can’t possibly be as bad as then.

To me, life is an endless stream of dealing with loss.  Yes, endless: I had a 50/50 chance of surviving at birth, then my jealous half-sister put a pillow over my face when I was a few months old, my step-brother sexually molested me when I was 3 until my early teens, my mother died when I was 15 and my dad four years later but it didn’t stop there, my auntie, my cat.  I know it sounds silly but the reason why I got the cat was to help me cope, and it died too of anti-freeze poisoning.

Shortly after that I started to attend Arty-Folks with a friend.  I was living at the YMCA and I had made some good friends by then.  Since then, I think I have been doing alright-ish, considering.  I might have to get used to living with these feelings but I can’t.  I hate it.  I want it all to go back to normal.  I am still not over losing mum, let alone losing my dad.  I have tried different counselling but I struggled to find the right words.  I can’t just chat about the past, I need some direction.

Sometimes I can still have a laugh and joke but as soon as it’s gone it’s back to feeling crap, nothing stays.  I had the support from so many agencies and so many opportunities put my way but nothing seems to warm my soul, not even God.  I am trying to let him in but I also need some answers!

I always had an interest in art and I used to like watching the crafty shopping channel.  I quite like to learn how to do things.  At Arty-Folks I got so disheartened and frustrated because I just couldn’t ever finish a project.   My mentor explained to me that it’s not my lack of abilities or willpower.  I feel so low and it’s draining me.  And I am so angry with GP’s, with God, and I can’t quite accept that things just happen for no rhyme or reason.  I am scared when something good happens or when I am happy because I am convinced something bad will follow.

I don’t self-harm, I don’t take drugs, I don’t drink or get drunk very often, I am not addicted to social media, gambling, or gaming, and I am looking for a job working with animals.  That’s why my GP thinks I am fine and doesn’t take how I feel seriously.  It’s all down to my thyroid and medication will sort it out.  So I put on a fake mask and I get on with it.

N.R. “My brain felt itching”

I don’t know what happened to me, why I got so ill.  I had married the year before and I came from India to Coventry to be with my husband in September.  But by Christmas I was having panic attacks, smelling blood all the time.  I was hearing voices laughing and saying horrible things about me.  I was scared that my neighbours were part of a conspiracy against me and I used to sit alone at home too scared to even leave my room.  I was isolated with strange thoughts and feelings, and I was getting weird experiences like in horror movies. My husband couldn’t understand and he was getting frustrated.   I felt that there was another person inside of him like a ghost.

I met my husband through a matrimonial internet site and he seemed kind, affectionate and respectful, a modern man which made me decide to marry him.  We both felt well matched and I was then happy with my life.  I don’t know what went wrong.

The GP admitted me to the mental health hospital and I stayed over 6 months.  Even there I felt there were ghosts in me and around me everywhere.  My brain felt itching all the time with stress and my mind was crying a lot.  My Care Coordinator referred me to Arty-Folks and I felt so much better meeting other people with similar problems.   I started to relax and enjoy my artwork and my mentor helped me to start volunteering and join other groups.  After a year I was leading a busy life but still didn’t feel I was progressing.

Arty-Folks suggested changing medication as I had been on the same one for over 10 years, something I hadn’t considered.  It took a while to sort it out with mental health professionals but you wouldn’t believe the difference it made to my mind and my quality of life!  My mind belongs to me again and I live in the present.  I can hear myself think and I know what is real and what is not.  My Arty-Folks mentor told me that I used to let out a torrent of words without start or finish but I have now started to look at my story, warts and all.

I was born in India and I was very happy when we all lived with grandparents in one house.  I still don’t know why I had to go to a primary school for military personnel and move way.  I hated this school. There were 65-70 children in one class and teachers had to be very strict and punished us often.  My English was very weak and when I had low marks I was scared that everyone would make fun of me.  I was always worried they would call my parents and that I would have to repeat a year.  I had my book always with me, worried about forgetting things. I had no friends and I felt like an outcast because I didn’t come from a rich family.

12 years I was at this school and it felt like a prison.  I couldn’t wait to start secondary school and make new friends.  I wanted to help everybody.  If somebody asked me for money I would give it to them.  I would help with their studies and do their homework for them.  I just wanted to make friends, whatever they asked me to do I would do.  I would also go with them bunking class, just to go with them, to have fun.  But actually, now I realise they were not friends, they were just using me.

My parents believe I got this mental illness because I didn’t obey.  I was 20 when my mother found out I was in love with a boy I my class. My mother was shocked and she wouldn’t allow it.  At the time I was highly excitable and probably already ill.  I thought I was happy, I had friends, I was at college, and I had a teenage crush on a boy.  My parents said I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating, and I was aggressive and not listening to anybody.  They took me to the hospital where many people held me down and injected me with so much medication that I slept for 2 weeks.  After that I was blank and I not able to function without meds.  When I went back to college I was afraid to talk to people and they weren’t talking to me.  I felt like a ‘mental patient’, a feeling that is still haunting me today.

In India if you have a physical illness people understand but if you are mentally unwell they keep away and consider you an outcast.  Nobody knows back home I have been ill and I have learnt to hide it from everybody.  It was my parents’ dirty secret.  I feel guilty and ashamed of the things I have said when I was ill but most of all I feel sad about my past.

I have completed a Masters in Computer Science but I don’t really understand this illness.  Arty-Folks has always encouraged me to express my thoughts and feelings in my artwork and to share my experiences with my peers.  It has taken me a long time to find the courage but they did not judge me.  I am so proud of my artwork and I am always excited when we all exhibit together.  I can show my husband how I feel and I can show him that other people have similar experiences.  It makes me feel so much more at peace knowing that I am not the only one.

My husband and I have been through a lot these past couple of years but it has brought us closer and made us stronger together.  I feel good now and I am looking forward to starting my own family.

A.C. “Being patient with myself”

I started Arty-Folks just before Christmas together with a few friends.  Perhaps not surprisingly my Arty-Folks mentor felt that I wasn’t going to last because I was in a pretty bad place.  I felt everything had gone wrong so far and I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of being an adult and looking after myself.  I was drinking, smoking, eating junk, self-harming, overdosing, and I was taken by ambulance to A&E two or three times each week.  They usually bandaged me up and sent me on my way.  Nobody ever asked me why I was doing it.  I was in such a dark place but nobody seemed to care.

All I wanted was someone to listen and to help me make sense of what I was going through.  I guess this is what kept me going to Arty-Folks and develop the dialogue with my mentor.   At first we resolved practical issues like debts and dealing with landlords, and then we discussed how I can improve the dialogue with medical staff through to good and bad coping strategies and the past experiences that are fuelling those.

Since joining a year ago I  moved into my own place, started intense DBT therapy, stopped smoking cannabis and cigarettes, was drinking in moderation and only socially, was volunteering at Arty-Folks and at my church, and I even started playing badminton.  Best of all I haven’t had a stress-induced seizure for over 6 weeks!  I have good friends and I am getting on really well again with my close family and I had a fabulous Christmas.  Seriously, I was doing amazing.

A new year has started and I am not sure what is going wrong again now.  It feels I have lost direction and I am slowly relapsing.  I started drinking and smoking again because I wanted that fuzziness and at that moment being tipsy makes me happy.  I knew things were really going wrong when I started to hoard my medication rather than taking it because it usually leads to an overdose.  Of course I know it’s not the right thing to do but I wanted this feeling of being stuck to stop.  I was scared of slipping back but at the same time also scared of going forward.

I couldn’t wait to get back to the art group and the first workshop back was great.  I loved playing with flowing colours as we were creating a ‘soup of potential’.  But at the end of the session I was still feeling really down, disappointed in me and disheartened.   I sat down with my mentor after the art class for what we call ‘mental fishing’.  It’s always a ramble at first because I can’t really understand why I am feeling this way but eventually what’s bugging me floats to the surface.  It takes time, lots of time, good quality time where my mind is allowed to bop up and down in murky waters until it hooks onto something, the thing that has been draining me in the background.  It really is a bit weird and I always feel a bit anxious at first because you just don’t know where it’s going to take you.  But after we’ve gone past the bits and pieces we can see how things link up and themes emerge that make sense to me.

I still really want to become a nurse and I realised how worried I am I might never make it.  I have failed Uni  twice because I was so desperately ill and I know I won’t get student finance again.  I know that I need to be patient and get myself well but at the same time my future career direction is weighing heavily on my mind.   I realised that I am under intense pressure because my dreams were shattered once before when I was 12.  I was air cadet then and I loved it.  We went away on week-ends, there was always something to do, always friends around me, and I was proud of being a core marksman.  I then went to military college, a boarding school where things started to go wrong.  I was harassed and bullied by prefects and when I came out as trans I was discharged on medical grounds.  My dream of serving in the military was shattered.  I started Uni and became a welfare officer but found helping others much more interesting than the engineering course.  This made me decide to change to a Nursing Degree but unfortunately I was so ill by then they threw me off the course.

Isn’t it strange that you can be so very mentally ill and you are the last person to know?  I was hearing voices and self-harming regularly but still didn’t realise how ill I was.  Other people had to tell me and only now can I can look back and see how vulnerable I was, how confused, how lost, and emotionally tormented.  Believe me, looking back at the things you have said and done is very, very hard.  I feel guilty and I feel ashamed, and I still don’t fully understand how I got to such a dark place.

My mentor is encouraging me to talk my experiences through openly without fear so I can learn to understand what motivated me and have empathy for myself.  I have to learn to be patient, to take one step at a time and to develop the confidence that each step I take will lead me to solid ground and towards my future full of potential.  I know I am now in a different place and that I have a lot of good people around me but I find it so hard to trust I won’t slip back.

B.S. “Beating Depression – It’s my life! 

I just couldn’t figure out what was holding me back.  I had found Arty-Folks on the internet and I hadn’t talked about my mental health to anyone before.  I remember my mentor saying that I didn’t seem to realise how ill I was, and no, I didn’t.  I didn’t think I was ill at all !  I thought it’s just my personality – I am a misfit, dislikeable, unacceptable, a failure, a burden on my family, too quiet and shy to make friends.

Coming from an Asian background, the expectation to be successful is embedded in me.  But I failed 6th form and I couldn’t get out of my head that I started off with four subjects, dropped Art because it was too time consuming, failed Math at the end of the first year, took Economics and Biology but I failed Biology at the end.  It was a waste of 2 years.  I went to college to do a HND in Business and topped it up to a Degree, but again it was the wrong choice.  I was accepting that I was a failure and a disappointment to my family.

One day, I was watching TV with my mum and I knew I should have walked away before she started going on about marriage, that I have only a couple of years because all the good ones go.  I said nothing, looked down on my phone and cried.  I have always walked away and I hoped they would get the hint and let off. My family see marriage as a law, it has to be done, and a good husband is the sign of success for an Asian woman.  And even though no one is saying it out loud, I feel they look at me and think that I am a failure.  They can’t break away from their old-fashioned ways, I can’t conform, and we can’t meet in the middle either.

What I really wanted to say was:  “Mum, I know you want me to get married and you believe that finding Mr Right would sort me out.  But I don’t.  I don’t think like you.  I don’t want to get married now and maybe not even later.  I feel I need to do something else first but I don’t know what that is yet.  Stop putting pressure on me and give me time to find out for myself what is right for me.”  Instead, I retreated into my bedroom and cut myself.  I didn’t feel like I belonged to my family more than ever before.

I have had so many part-time and temporary admin jobs since college and I tried hard to get on but they all depressed me deeply.  I couldn’t fit in, I never felt normal like everyone else.    Two years went by and some things had changed in my life but didn’t have much of an impact on how I felt.  I was still up all night locked in my bedroom and not able to face the day, hoping that tidying up my room would tidy up my head, often cutting or starving myself.  I knew what I didn’t want in life but I couldn’t map my way forward.  I began to recognise that my physical health was starting to deteriorate and I finally accepted I needed the help of anti-depressants to stabilise my mood.  In between jobs I have always come back to Arty-Folks, usually in tears.  I felt Arty-Folks was the only place I had friends and was accepted for who I am, where I felt at home.

Arty-Folks encouraged me to make a commitment to myself, to listen to myself, to follow my passion.  I began to realise that maybe, to find my own way forward, I needed to stop stressing, give myself time to work out what is right by me, and apparently the rest would follow.  Frightening!  But also exciting.  I had always found it hard to have a say, to speak up, and now I had my peers listening to me, and Arty-Folks giving me time and space to become me.

Slowly, through my artwork I began to express my frustrations and to find my voice.  So here I am now: I am following my passion and I am studying Foundation in Art and Design without worrying ahead where it would lead me.  At the start it was hard as I didn’t feel I had anything in common with others again and I struggled to deal with the harsh criticism of my tutors.  But I could always talk it through with my mentor at Arty-Folks and I am slowly learning not to care about what other people say.

September 2017, I am following my passion and I am studying Foundation in Art and Design at Coventry University without worrying ahead where it would lead me. At the start it was hard as I didn’t feel I had anything in common with others again and I struggled to deal with the harsh criticism of my tutors. But I could always talk it through with my mentor at Arty-Folks and I have slowly learnt to stand by my own views.

March 2018, I am preparing for my last assessment and I will be sad when the course
finishes because I have had a fantastic time and I have made amazing friendships for life. I had something to get up for every day and I have finally been able to turn my body clock around. Yes, I am not nocturnal anymore and I can get up in the morning and be on time! I don’t self-harm anymore and I am eating regularly. No, I don’t have a job lined up but I am not worried. I don’t think that I will fall into the same depth of depression as I have done in the past. I know now that a job is just a means to an end and not a measure of my worth. Most of all I am thrilled that I have been able to inspire some of my friends at Arty-Folks to follow in my footsteps and I will be happy to give advice and support if they need it through their Foundation year.

September 2018, I was completely upfront with my employers and colleagues about my depression and I was so surprised that they were so understanding and supportive.  I am working full-time now and I am really enjoying it.  I have not missed a day at work yet and I am always on time and I feel for the first time happy and content with my life.

S.M. “Living with Schizophrenia – I am doing my best!”

Don’t you think I am trying?  You are telling me that I don’t live in the real world, that my reality does not exist.  So let me show you what my reality looks like and then you tell me how much you would like to live in it.

I am Tamil and born in Sry Lanka during the civil war.  My dad left us unprotected when I was 2 and went with my two eldest sisters to work in the UK.  My mother and her ‘cousin’ took us to India where we led a very quiet life hidden away.  I had a very kind friend, Leo who visited me every night to reassure me.  He told me how much he loves studying IT at Uni and one day I would like to do the same.  When I was 13 my mother paid a lot of money to an agent and had me smuggled into the UK.  I will never forget every word of our last conversation, how we cried and hugged, and how she promised over and over again that she would soon follow with my little sister.  I had to burn any identification so if I would get caught I wouldn’t be sent back.  Trafficked over land, I remained in hiding in various locations for 2 years until I reached the UK.  I will never forget the BP petrol station where I was finally reunited with my father.  I was 15 years old and I weighed 5stones or 35kg.  I was more dead than alive.  During all that time Leo was with me, my constant and reliable friend.

My father turned out to be a violent drunk who attacked me with a knife and threatened to kill me.  I moved in with my oldest sister but she beat me and locked me up like a slave.   I moved to my other sister but she treated me like a house maid.  One day she left me with her 6 months old baby and went to Spain on a holiday with her lover, just like that, without telling anyone.  Nobody cared and nobody wanted me.  My father died when I was 19 and I lost residency.  Since then I have no right to be anywhere because I am nobody.  Legally, I don’t exist.  I have no country I can prove my own and where I have the right to feel safe.  I don’t have a home anywhere in this world and I am all on my own.  I don’t belong and nobody belongs to me.  You have no idea how frightening to be truly all alone in this world is!  I made a new friend, Rachel, who began fighting my corner.  I admire her, she is so strong!

I have tried every way to get back in touch with my mother and sister but they seem to have vanished from the face of the earth.  I feel she sold me out.  I had no money and nowhere I could stay but my sister’s jilted husband took me in, hoping that I would help him look after the two children.  Instead, my voices and visions became so powerful I became a liability and I am grateful he is looking after me.  Even Leo and Rachel struggle to protect me from the screaming people with burning faces that are attacking me day and night.  The constant noise is deafening and keeps me awake.  I live in constant panic that somebody will take me away, and most days I am unable to leave my bedroom.  I was hospitalised many times and at first I always felt safer there but staff make me so angry when they tell me that my reality isn’t real.  It is very much real to me!

My care coordinator introduced me to Arty-Folks and I was relieved that nobody there was telling me to give up the two people my life depends on.  I loved the art straight away.  It was so different from anything I knew and I loved learning new things all the time.  After a few months I started to feel more relaxed and I made new friends, real ones you will be pleased to hear.  I also started bit by bit to tell my story and Arty-Folks then helped me to work with the Refugee Centre to get at least a temporary visa.

Arty-Folks visited me when I was sectioned again and for the first time somebody showed an interest in my reality.  Nobody had ever asked me before what the voices were saying or tried to help me make sense of my experiences.  I was always told that my world is not real and to take these pills that would make it all go away.  Medication usually works for a little while and then the side effects start like cramps, shaky legs, drowsiness, nausea, it’s horrible.  Talking about my past made me realise how desperately lonely I am, how worried I am about my mother and sister.  I think of them every day and I pray they are still alive.  I worry if we would recognise each other if we met now.  I remember their promise and I just can’t understand why they have not been in touch with me.  I am so sad but I am also so angry because they have lied to me and they have abandoned me.

You can say that Rachel and Leo are imaginary but they are helping me stay alive.  The reality you say is real and you think I should live in is one where there is no one single soul I can count on to be there for me when I am desperately sad, lost, and lonely.  I prefer to live in my reality where I am hunted by pure evil but I also have two people who are always at my side fighting my corner.  I attend Arty-Folks whenever I can because it’s a safe place for me where my visions and voices get quieter and sometimes even disappear when I am doing my artwork.  But I am often not able to win over this immense fear of leaving the safety of my bedroom.