Participatory Arts: Mothers Make Art to Heal Minor Mental Health Trauma

Dr Lisa Watts is an artist that has an eclectic practice, with a core of disciplines of performance, sculpture, photography and video, including courses in art and mental health.

The Birth Project - Mothers Make Contemporary Art from Eve Wood on Vimeo.


The following is a paragraph recounting my own minor mental health trauma in the birth of my second child. In the vein of the historical political stance, the ‘personal is political’, and the knowledge that in therapy the facilitator (myself in this project) often has a shared experience with the participants, I reveal my experience below. However, if you don’t want to know of this minor trauma then please skip over the following paragraph titled, My minor trauma…. It is not very dramatic, but I do not want to pass on mental imagery and a story that is not of your choosing to know, as often in social media horrific imagery can surprise and pounce on you, then stay with you. My story is not necessary for you to read to understand this project, it’s solely if you want to experience some ‘sharing’.

My minor trauma in the birth of my second child

With the birth of my second child I had none of the rush of love that I had for my first. I loved her and I was dutiful in caring for her, but the pleasure was in the looking after her, rather than enjoying looking at her, cuddling her and playing with her. Every day I had visions of harming her that were like flash images. I knew I would never hurt her, but one time I threw myself on my bed clutching her to sideline my desire to throw her on the bed. The visions of harming her left me after nine months when I received a letter to say that I was successful receiving funding for a project. The thoughts of harm disappeared overnight and this coincided with a much greater enjoyment of her. In retrospect, my financial pressures had brought on this reception of the daughter I had so badly wanted.

Overview of the Mothers Make Contemporary Art project

About a year after my child was born I began to declare my mental health experiences to a few friends and experienced the benefit of speaking out about the experience. So when a freelance job was advertised to design and facilitate a course for mothers that had experienced minor trauma in the birth of their child, or the early months of their child’s life, I applied for it. I was interviewed and employed by Dr Susan Hogan, Professor in Cultural Studies & Art Therapy at Derby University, UK who is leading The Birth Project, which included Mothers Make Contemporary Art. This project is part of a larger £1.5 million Arts Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project researching the impact of arts and therapy.

I have worked for seventeen years in participatory arts, designing and delivering bespoke courses for various groups including: 

  • semi-professional disabled artists;  
  • NHS support service workers; and
  • children who would not attend school

My courses have been applauded along the way, but I have never written about them until now. Writing is not my main practice; making art and working with people is. Now, seventeen years on, this course is being written about and a documentary has been made about it. The documentary has been nominated for an AHRC award for innovation and we will know the result on the 9th of November 2017.

The Group and materials used in the workshop

The course was for twelve weeks, three hours a week, and we had a crèche for the Mothers’ children. The group of women were recruited from playgroups and attended the course wishing to question their experience of birth, parenting and fertility through art. The group was not a co-facilitation group as such, but instead over the duration of the course they brought their skills and knowledge to their individual art practice. Whilst I facilitated the group I was simultaneously in another themed group therapy, as a participant, with an art therapist for women that had experienced minor trauma in the birth or early months of their child.

Often in art therapy the materials and objects used have been designed for the purpose of art making, however in my workshops the group brought along found objects that were pertinent to questions I had asked them. The group also used everyday/ mundane objects to learn about how meaning is produced.


The trauma that was expressed from the women’s birth stories seemed to most often occur when they experienced a ‘lack of agency’ whilst in labour and the early days after giving birth. This lack of agency resulted from:

  • their inability to make informed decisions
  • not being treated with respect
  • not being helped when they were unable to help themselves.

My course was considered successful and was measured with wellbeing scales at the beginning and end of the twelve weeks, analysis of which showed improvement in self-reported measures across most fields and an extremely noteworthy increase in the overall Warwick-Edinburgh mental well-being scale (SWEMWBS) scores for this project and the art therapy project with mothers that ran alongside it (37%). Also, in my last workshop I handed out review sheets with questions on what it was like being in the workshop. Below are some of their replies:

“Helped me enormously work through my own issues – issues I wasn’t necessarily aware existed”!

“Felt very connected to (the) other women, very close”.

“Special, caring attitudes towards each other”.

“Share ‘moments’ of empathy. Felt able to express myself freely, cry very early on. We all shared the intense, powerful experience of being mothers. In a creative environment. Time and space to talk about me. Emotional and liberating. Felt supported and cared for. Have never felt silly”.

The group were extremely keen to continue with a follow-up group that discussed what it’s like to be a working mother. I tried to fund raise from the Arts Council three times but failed, so the group no longer exists. To see whether we win the AHRC Innovation award, visit the Birth Project website.

Related Links:

Image: Equilibrium made by Rachel Vedder (participant)

Maternal and neonatal health
Treatment, care and rehabilitation
All disorders
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