Emma Phillips, 40, from Branston, Staffordshire, UK, is a mixed media visual artist. Originally from Hertfordshire, Emma has been married for 12 years and has two children aged 8 and 11. A self professed adrenaline junkie who has completed 6 bungee jumps and who has done indoor sky-diving, this artist is a true champion when it comes to battling her illness every day. After being signed off work due to her mental illness, Emma has taken her art a step further by expressing her inner world and the turbulence suffered from her ongoing illness, Borderline Personality Disorder. Emma has always loved art and it was her favourite subject at school and continued to study art and design until she had to drop out in year two due to her mental health. However now Emma is being given the opportunity to put her artistic ability toward the ASLI mission and be part of the change in the world, especially in educating people about mental illness and ripping apart the tired old stigma which anyone with mental health struggles faces almost on a daily basis. We chose to feature Emma due to her openness and when we saw her art, we know this needed to be seen by a wider, global audience.
What is your process when creating?
I find it near impossible to verbalise my thoughts and emotions so sometimes I find a quote online that sums up how I’m feeling and then I’ll come up with an image and/or background to go with it. Or sometimes I have the image first but don’t know how to verbalise it so I look at quotes. I often change my mind as I’m painting as I don’t like what I’ve done so usually there are a few different backgrounds under the one you see.
Who are you influenced by within your artistic discipline?
I wouldn’t say I’m influenced by a specific artist……more an artistic style…. Art journaling.
Who inspires you in general?
Those who are able to persevere through extreme adversity.
What causes and world issues are you passionate about, campaign for, volunteer for…?
I support a small charity called Supershoes who I became a volunteer artist for last year. They gift hand painted Converse trainers to seriously and terminally ill children. I also like to support animal charities, cancer charities, the Salvation Army and MS charities.
What do the statements “art saves lives” and “art creates change” mean to you?
Art can and does save lives and can and does create change by allowing people freedom of expression.
Have your artistic and creative outlets saved your life in anyway and do you think your message within them could help create change in the world?
I believe my artwork has allowed my therapist into my world. Upon seeing my first piece he said “you communicate more in that than you have verbally communicated in the last year”. It was definitely a turning point. There’s no denying my work is hard hitting and I do feel the messages within my work could help create change with how others (with no experience) perceive mental illness.
What are your present and future goals for your art?
I have just enrolled onto a distance learning course Level 3 Certificate in Art & Design, I’m hoping that upon completion of that in a years’ time that I may be in a position to feel confident to progress to a class based art foundation course and eventually an art degree.
The following question are about mental health:
Can you tell us about your own experiences with mental illness?
I was officially diagnosed with depression and anxiety at the age of 17 although I’m learning through therapy that my mental health issues started at a very young age. I have previously overdosed and spent time in a psychiatric hospital and also in respite care. I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in addition to depression and anxiety in January this year aged 40. I struggle with social anxiety too.
How does your artistic /creative expression help you with your mental health?
Yes, I created my first mental illness provoked piece whilst in respite care. The conservatory was full of a wide variety of creative materials and I shut myself in there and got messy with acrylic paints and newspaper cuttings and fabric. I was pleased with my creation and I took it along to my next session with my therapist. He feels I communicate a lot more in my artwork than I ever can verbally and he is always encouraging me to paint.
Have you ever experienced being stigmatised or marginalised due to your mental health or have you seen this happen to someone else?
Yes definitely in the workplace and also by family and friends. I recently lost my job, I believe, due to the stigma surrounding BPD. I big part of BPD is self harm, the vast majority of people who don’t have experience of mental illness think of the stereotypical teenager cutting for attention. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Self harm covers a multitude of actions of harming oneself for a variety of reasons and affects people of all ages.
Have you ever received treatment for mental health and if so, what was it, did it help and was it private or state funded?
Over a period of 24 years I have seen 8 therapists, 4 psychiatrists and been on too many medications to remember. It took 20 years before I was referred to a Psychiatrist who promptly said to me “You need to change how you think”. Another Psychiatrist told me “You don’t look very depressed”. Until November last year I felt the NHS were not helpful at all. I do realise now that my lack of being able to verbalise my emotions was a big part of the problem and was why I wasn’t being heard. My current therapist (Integrative Psychotherapist) is private and I’ve been with him since September 2013. I still find it extremely difficult to openly talk but he is by far the best therapist (by an absolute mile) I’ve seen and says he will be with me for as long as it takes. I have also recently started Dialectical Behavioural Therapy with an NHS Community Psychiatric Nurse although this will be short term but I do believe it will be helpful.
Do you think society and culture is accepting of people with mental illness?
I feel society and culture are more accepting of depression and anxiety but not of more complex disorders.
How do you feel your Government in your country helps people with mental illness and could they do more?
The UK government have made huge budget cuts to the point where no one gets long term help anymore and it’s ridiculous. Our local NHS Psychiatric hospital was closed down. The ‘crisis teams’ have become little more than ‘gatekeepers’ trying to keep A&E departments clear of those in distress due to mental illness.
Have you ever had any creative therapies as part of your treatment, did it help?
No I haven’t but I wish I had. It needs to be made more available.
Do you think artistic / creative expression can be used to help people with mental health problems?
Yes, definitely! I think whether you are naturally artistic/creative or not it’s possible to express emotion through art when you don’t feel able to verbalise it. It’s also something that is suitable for all ages and backgrounds.
Do you think artistic / creative expression could help raise awareness and communicate how mental illness affects people?
Yes I do, I would like to see more exhibitions of work created by those affected by mental illness and that they should be widely advertised. Too many people judge those with mental illness from how they look on the outside. Artistic/creative expression shows what’s on the inside.
What made you want to get involved with ASLI’s MENTAL ILLNESS, HEALTH AND RECOVERY CAMPAIGN?
After my diagnosis I joined a closed Facebook group to be able to chat online to others with BPD. I was only a member of the group for a few weeks but in that time I posted some photos of my artwork which was spotted by ASLI’s MD Charlotte Farhan and we soon got chatting.
Do you believe in more rights for mentally ill people in the work place and for equal opportunities?
Hmmmm, I feel that’s quite a contradictory question as ‘more rights’ wouldn’t mean ‘equal opportunities’. There definitely needs to be more education for employers regarding mental illness.
We at ASLI want to de-stigmatize diagnosis labels within mental illness so that people treat others and their own mental health label as that of a diabetic or any other chronic “physical” illness, as we know the brain is physical and this would further improve stigma and marginalising mental illness. How do you feel about diagnosis labels?
When I received my diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder I was crushed and it has certainly had a negative impact on me and how certain individuals treat me. The new name for BPD sounds even worse ‘Emotionally unstable personality – borderline type’. I’m aware that some people think that the ‘borderline’ part refers to being on the border of having a personality disorder or not. Rather than it meaning the borderline between neurosis and psychosis. To be honest I think it’s the explanation of BPD available all over the internet that carries more stigma than the label itself.
Everyone within ASLI is affected in some way by mental illness, with our MD having several chronic mental illnesses and other members either caring for or dealing with mental health issues. Would this make you think twice about working with ASLI? And does this make ASLI “less professional” in your opinion and if so why?
Absolutely not!! I feel much more comfortable working with ASLI for the fact that staff members have first or second hand experience of mental illness. I would be very sceptical about working with an organisation who were wanting to raise awareness who didn’t have staff members with experience of mental illness. I know that Charlotte ‘gets’ me.
Are there any artists/creatives/performers which you admire, who suffer from mental illness that you feel use their work to discuss or highlight mental health?
Finally is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself or your experiences?
I struggle to see a positive future ahead of me and very much live day to day and sometimes just hour to hour. I’m hoping that through my art and my therapy sessions that my outlook can be improved upon.
If you would like to know more about Emma please contact her:
or find her on Facebook HERE