The connection between the arts and wellbeing is well established. There are master taught courses on the subject, rich research papers and many insightful accounts from experts by experience, showing the benefits.
I want to share with you how I as an NHS doctor and Future Psychiatrist, receive dual benefit from the arts; for my own practioner wellbeing and for my future patients.
The word narrative stems from the Latin narratives ‘telling a story’ And the arts fundamentally hold the power to tell a story, in a universal manner to leave a mark on all those it touches.
I should mention my own narrative. I am a doctor passionate about working in mental health, I am enchanted by the arts and fascinated by nutrition. I also suffer with Depression and Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
How have the arts helped me?
The arts have played different roles at different landmarks throughout my mental health course.
In crisis I must admit I was inconsolable. I just had to endure the feeling of sinking for a while. Then slowly, rely on lifejackets to save me, be it: time, the greatest healer, medication, support networks and talking therapy. These lifejackets were essential to help me exist before a shift in my thinking occurred and I finally could live again. And finally paddle on my own albeit, with some obstacles on the way. Know that it is never a simple, linear, swim back to shore. There will always be setbacks, but these are also lessons you learn along the way and ultimately make your experience of being human even richer.
At the stage of paddling, I was able to think more clearly and find ways to help myself. What were those ways for me?
Spoken Word, Poetry, Writing, Painting, Cinema, Theatre, Reading, Fashion
What did I self-prescribe, when and why?
During Medical School, in times of acute anxiety, catastrophic thinking patterns and an unwavering rapid heart rate, I would escape to the cinema. I would lie to my housemates, telling them I was off to meet a friend, or I was going on a long walk to make phone-calls. I did not want to be judged for going to the cinema on my own and be viewed as a ‘loner.’ That is all now by the by and I certainly and thankfully have grown in my mindset. I no longer live in fear of being judged. I try my hardest to just DO ME.
Back to the subject of The Cinema, also known as my haven, my dark comforting euphoric cave. My place of refuge. My sanctuary. How beautiful it was to be able to disconnect from social media and the outside world, sit comfortably in a shared physical space with other bodies and collectively focus our gaze on an external narrative. Shifting my gaze from my fraught tale on to someone else’s’ narrative on screen was a blessing. I could switch off, be mindful, present, focused, live in the moment and BREATHE. From ruffled to unruffled.
I could be naked with my emotions, unchain them from my imprisoned mind and bare my true self. I could cry in the dark and it felt great, truly cathartic. The sense of calm I experienced was utterly uplifting. I felt empowered I am almost certain that had I measured my physiological metrics (heart rate and blood pressure) before and after the screening, the reduction would be evident and significant.
In times of feeling lost, aimless, and unmotivated, creativity has unlocked my potential to thrive. The most poignant lesson I learnt in therapy was that we all have innate resilience and we all can access it at any time and any place. We are just a thought away from wellbeing.
My thought to get me back on the wellbeing train saw me spontaneously picking up a paint brush…
I took an opportunity and I ask you reader, to take that plunge and ask yourself “what would I do if I was not scared to try?”
I was twenty-two at the time, I had not picked up a paintbrush since I was in art class aged fifteen, and I just went for it.
I created this multi-media painting halfway through Medical School, which I named ‘Enslaved Mind.’
Read here to find out about the symbolism behind the brain:
What did I learn through this spontaneous act of creativity?
I found that the process of creating this piece was incredibly therapeutic, sensory and gave me a sense of purpose. Furthermore, from feeling lost and slightly helpless, the experience gave me a deep sense of clarity.
Poetry & Spoken Word
In times of despair and frustration due to relapsed low mood I have found writing poetry and consequently performing my words deeply rewarding and liberating. The piece below is from 2021, I had agreed with my doctor to taper down my anti-depressants as I had been feeling stable for 3 years. However, I began to feel deeply low, a feeling I had long forgotten about. Whether this was a placebo response or physiological it does not really matter. Either way, my depression was temporarily back for a short period, and I was exasperated by its unwelcome arrival. I took to writing to reclaim a sense of control over my narrative and my feelings. It allowed me to reframe the negative experience and create something to help soothe me and hopefully help others in similar boats.
To Live, rather than Survive by Dr Ally Jaffee
It comes and goes,
Round the corner
Is that you I recognise?
No, not again.
The realisation, transient sadness.
It’s natural. It’s okay.
No longer intimidated.
Highs- yes, many
Mountains of joy.
But it is creeping.
Creeping round the corner
I invalidate its presence.
Oh, it’s sadness again.
It will pass.
No, not this time.
Rising from the trenches of my mind.
Bears it’s powerful yet ghastly head.
We meet again.
But this time I know you better than you know me.
I see through you.
I know how to beat you down.
Not beat you dead.
But beat you into dismissal,
In the hope that is us done, dusted.
But deep down I know we’re not.
The more you come the more I fight
Fighting faster and smarter each time.
Face to face.
If you show up again
I’ll plot to besiege you.
I am not your hostage.
I am not your prisoner.
I am not your slave.
I’ll never stop plotting,
Plotting to cope, plotting to thrive,
Plotting to be.
To live, rather than survive
You can’t take that away from me.
No-one or nothing can.
Watch my spoken word performance of this poem:
As you can see, I have a tailored bespoke approach to my own mental wellbeing, it requires patience, acceptance, self-compassion, belief, and introspection. It also requires safety-nets and lifejackets in the form of professional healthcare support.
I believe the arts have an endless capacity and potential to help individuals thrive, flourish, feel worthy and fulfilled, gain clarity and to feel connected to one another, through a shared humanity. It is my hope that I can help my future patients flourish through a creative arts prescription.
Some insight into my lived experience with Depression:
Dr Ally Jaffee Biography
Dr Ally Jaffee is an NHS Junior doctor, Diana Award recipient and co-founder of Nutritank. Ally is passionate about mental health and its intersecting fields- particularly the arts & nutrition. In the long-term Ally hopes to pursue a career in Psychiatry and dabble in TV, writing and policy- change. Ally also holds a BSc degree in Medical Humanities & Creative Arts from Imperial College London.
A keen innovator, Ally is on the prestigious NHS Clinical Entrepreneurship Programme. Four years ago, Ally co- founded a BBC award- winning Social Enterprise, Nutritank. Its mission is to promote greater nutrition and lifestyle medicine education within healthcare training due to the staggering increase of chronic disease.
Ally has worked closely with the likes of BBC radio 4 presenter Sheila Dillon and even Jamie Oliver. Ally has featured in articles for the Metro and BBC news. Ally’s passion for nutrition in Psychiatry saw her recently piloting a cooking programme on a Psychiatric unit in London, with promising results.
Ally believes strongly in authenticity and openness and shares her own mental health struggles online and hopes to normalise the conversation. Ally is proud ambassador of the charity YouOkayDoc- set up to support doctors’ mental health.
These views are my own and do not represent any institution I work for. The ‘prescriptions’ worked for me; they may not work for you. If you are struggling, please seek help with your healthcare professional. Always ask for help and never go off your medication without clinical advice.