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Arts and minds at the Tate

Tate Britain is working with the NHS to help people with mental illness

"The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance," Aristotle said. People dealing with the devastating effects of mental illness say that, for them, this is especially true. But while the value of art therapy is widely recognised, galleries have, until now, been considered daunting and inaccessible to sufferers.

A new collaboration between Tate Britain and art therapists at Oxleas NHS Trust in south-east London hopes to break down some of the psychological barriers that have hampered the use of public art to help people affected by mental illness.

In the first stage of a groundbreaking project, parents and carers of children with mental health problems have been encouraged by a Tate curator and art therapist to study a number of famous works. Their reactions and interpretations can be heard by visitors to the Tate galleries as audio guides to the exhibits from tomorrow. The next stage will be to bring in mentally ill people themselves.

Neil Springham, chair of the British Association of Art Therapists and head of art therapy at Oxleas, said: "Art has a power; it can move people in lots of ways, but only if they engage with it on a personal level. For people affected by mental illness who may have a lot of personal pain, this can be extremely difficult.

"This two-year project has been a way of bringing people with enormous vulnerabilities into galleries and helping them to emotionally engage with the art so that they can use this centre of excellence to improve their health and well-being."

Lord Howarth of Newport will tomorrow open the Advancing Arts and Mental Health conference at Tate Britain. Formerly an arts minister under Tony Blair, he is pushing for the Department of Health to recognise the value of art as therapy.

Tate Britain wants to increase public discussion of mental health issues. One in six people have a mental illness at any one time. The gallery's managers believe many visitors will be interested in its alternative interpretations of classic art works.

Felicity Allen, head of learning at Tate Britain, said: "This is part of our work to address the imbalance that exists in this country, which means there are plenty of spaces to discuss physical health problems but very few to discuss mental health.

"We see this as a double win: we want to provide a platform for people affected by mental illness to speak, but this is also very useful for our visitors, who we don't know personally, but many, through their own experiences, will be more interested in this emotional route into the paintings rather than the more traditional art historical interpretation on our audio guide."

Three Studies for a Self-Portrait (Francis Bacon)

Fay's 19-year-old daughter has a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia: "My daughter sees things too. When she was younger she'd be like awake but asleep. She'd scream and it would go on for, oh, an hour or so in the night and she'd be so terrified. She'd look at me like I was a monster with two heads. When she went to the psychiatrist at 16, she did tell him that everyone's head seemed like the size of a pin. And when she looks at me, it's like she's trying to focus, trying to see through... to see me clearly."

Torso in Metal (Sir Jacob Epstein)

Jill has a 26-year-old son with paranoid schizophrenia: "People think my son looks scary. But I think he's like this sculpture. If you look, he's really soft on the inside, under the armour. My son had to develop a shell. But I'm his mother; I can still see the pain he feels on being different. As he got ill, his friends would try to keep in contact. But with even the best will, they couldn't cope with the silences and his tiredness. It wasn't really the bizarre behaviour. The look on that sculpture looks like a twist of pain. I think he really felt it when he couldn't keep his friends. I find this hard to look at."

The Saltonstall Family (David Des Granges)

Abbey has a 38-year-old son with post-traumatic stress disorder: "This painting makes me think about how families cope with mentally ill brothers and sisters. Our children are ill and they will be different. The children we thought they were going to be are dead in a way. That's like the lady in the bed. But we can't hold on to the past. My son is very caring and it frustrates me that the others don't see that. When I first looked, I think he [in the picture] looks like a man who can't let go of the past. I think he looks like a proud man now. I like the way our minds wander in this picture."

British Channel (John Brett)

Alan's wife and daughter, 27, have both been diagnosed with schizophrenia: "People are drawn to water when they have problems. They go to the coast and watch the waves. It's important to get away or it gets into your head. I believe mental illness can be catching just like any other illness; if you spend too long with it you start to lose your perspective and you get problems yourself. You do feel guilt but it's important to get away, because if you didn't, you'd go under too and then, where would everyone be? I find this really peaceful; you can almost hear the waves! [long pause] No, I could look into that for ages."

Nocturne: Blue and Silver (James McNeill Whistler)

Debbie's husband and son, 19, both suffer from psychoses: "I don't like it, it looks depressing. Like what my bad days can be like, all gloomy. I've always been afraid of the dark evenings, and this makes me think of that. But since listening to what other people have said, I think what I feel is more to do with my memories than this actual picture. I liked it more when someone said they can see it's like the peace of the morning. It's weird how the picture looks so different when you look at it someone else's way. Nice weird."

The Cholmondeley Ladies (British school)

Jenny is the mother of two children. Her 26-year-old daughter has cannabis-induced psychosis: "It reminds me of my children. All from the same family yet so different. We can't understand why one child's all right and the other is so ill. You look at the picture and wonder what their lives will be. But also, the more you look at the picture the more different they all look. Someone said the lady on the left looks more anxious than the other. I can see that now it's been said. Looking at it now, I've realised all my family photos in the lounge are pre-illness. I think we are trying to keep that bright child visible when so few people see her like that now. As her mum, I still see her in there, beyond the schizophrenia."