Polly's Story: Mental health & memories of Sheridan
At Paintings in Hospitals, we’re always looking forward: searching for new care partners, new ways to engage people with art, and new evidence to demonstrate how our work improves people's lives. But as we approach our 60th birthday, we’d like to take a look back at our history and our founder Sheridan Russell. Here, Polly Mortimer shares her memories of a young life in mental health care, of Sheridan, and why the charity he founded is so important.
by Polly Mortimer
I spent a significant part of my twenties either having episodes of 'manic depression', being held in psychiatric settings, then recovering from the 'treatment' and dreading the return of the condition, as I had been told it was lifelong and irrecoverable. Some time was spent at the Maudsley Hospital, South London, in the late 1970s.
My parents had been friends of Sheridan Russell and his wife Kit for many years as he had the downstairs flat from some old friends of my mother in Chelsea (where she was born and brought up). Occasionally they visited us in Sussex. I have very dim memories of Sheridan in his trademark beret - always fun, always kind. He used to write to my parents on scraps of paper with brainwaves printed on. My mother used to talk about him having been an almoner. I had no idea what that was - nowadays I guess it would be a social worker.
When I was in the Maudsley, I remember there being a row of paintings in the corridor down in Outpatients - including one by John Lake, again a friend of my parents. When the ward was unlocked, I used to sometimes sneak down to the cafe in Outpatients and gaze at the paintings on the wall. They gave me succour and something else to focus on. A sense of calm, and an alleviation from the daily grind on the bleak ward (masses of medication, some kind, some not-so-kind nurses, very nasty food, some very disturbed people, lovely healthcare assistants, and a feeling of solidarity among the patients).
When I was out of hospital, Sheridan must have got wind of this and asked me and my boyfriend (now husband) to a musical evening. I was dazed and confused from the drugs, but remember a calm and friendly atmosphere and some great cello verve from Sheridan. I think there was a virtuoso pianist too? He was as ever kind and generous and little sugared almonds came round on trays!
I never saw him again after that, I don't think. But his initiative and others like it make a vast difference to the lives of those in mental and physical distress. Art is soothing, brightening and relieving. The chaplain of the Maudsley at the time allowed me to play the harmonium (very badly) for the Sunday service and my friends came along. I'm an atheist, but it was again an opportunity of some musical mind expansion to take the edge off what was happening elsewhere in my psyche. And what was being done to my psyche by some alarmingly strong meds.
When my mother died around nine years ago, we gave a few of her artworks to Paintings in Hospitals and had a lovely time seeing some of them in an exhibition at the Menier Gallery. I love to think of them out there somewhere, bringing light and hope to people.
I'm happy to say I defied the gloomy prognostications of the psychiatrists: fully recovered, totally med free, raised three children, did a postgrad degree and have worked in libraries for twenty years, as well as having a parallel career as a mental health journalist and campaigner.
Paintings in Hospitals’ work and the work of others in this field is vital. I'm so glad you are here for all of us who will need calm and solace in the midst of turmoil at some time in our lives.
Polly is on Twitter: @Blog