Fashion matters… in mental health

Zoe Shaughnessy, MSc Applied Psychology in Fashion, reports on an event at the London College of Fashion.

13 October 2016

One in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year and if you’re working in creative job, you’re 25 per cent more likely to. The mental health foundation highlight that if we don’t act urgently, by 2030 depression will be the leading illness globally.

Against this backdrop, to mark World Mental Health Day 2016 on October 10, an audience of several hundred gathered at the London College of Fashion to to better understand the state of the creative industries from a mental health perspective, at a panel event entitled “Mental Health Issues in the Creative Industries.”

Sponsored by the British Psychological Society’s London and Home Counties Branch, the event was chaired by Chartered Psychologist Dr Carolyn Mair, course leader of the the MSc Applied Psychology in Fashion and MA in Psychology for Fashion Professionals at the London College of Fashion. 

In opening the conversation, the scene was set, drawing on the, sadly vast, examples that highlight the prevalence and complexities of mental health in the industry; from model Kate Moss’ negative experience of having to undertake adult work as a minor, to the loss of designer Alexander McQueen as a result of mental health issues and John Galliano’s mental health breakdown a few years ago. 

Panellist Rosie Nelson, a British model and activist for better healthcare in the model industry, added to the scene-setting by charting her journey in the world of modelling. Earlier in her career, Nelson, was asked to lose weight and slim “down to the bone” by a model agency, an event she said stripped away her self esteem, and further cemented the widespread pressure of models to stay thin.  

Compounding this view Caryn Franklin, MBE, Professor of Diversity in Fashion (Kingston University) highlighted that over the last 10 to 15 years, the average height of models has increased from  5”9 to 5”11, however the fashion sample size has still remained the same, thus the pressure to meet the “normalised ideal” as Franklin called it, is ever more pressured, however she also noted that it stimulates the need for a louder conversation to be ignited in this area. 

Franklin focused on the power that those in the fashion and creative industries have as they are in the "best place to agitate for reform because you know the complexities of it"; thus shining the beacon of hope and empowerment  back on the industry to shift the dial on the negative perceptions and experiences.

Mair supported this point and stated that while it may seem the creative industries are synonymous with mental ill-being it is important to acknowledge the ability of fashion to act as a vehicle for wellbeing. She highlighted that we all wear clothes everyday and they can also be a source of feeling good, the power of which should not be minimised. 

Panellist Dr Annmarie Rankin a Clinical Psychologist, drew on her experience both as a psychologist and as a former dancer in the Royal Ballet, stressing the importance of screening for mental health issues for those in the “middle ground”; who are not seeking help. In an industry that is so focused on perfection she welcomed the attention that the field of psychology is placing on exploring the perfection phenomena in all its forms, and called for enhanced awareness and education in this area. 

In seeking out treatment options Dr David O’Flynn, a Consultant Psychiatrist, highlighted the power of art therapy. O’Flynn, also Patron of Raw Material Music & Media and Trustee/Company Director of the Bethlem Gallery, highlighted the power of having a constructive, de-stigmatising and cathartic release through music creation and art for patients he treats who have psychosis. He posited that it was particularly useful for the male patients; in a masculine culture which doesn't necessarily allow for open discussion of such mental health challenges. 

Similarly, Franklin highlighted that initiatives such as the Model Sanctuary set up by model Erin O’Connor, offering nutritional, relaxation and counselling support for models during London Fashion Week, have forged a path to address the potential mental issues models specifically may face. This has subsequently been rolled out in other cities with the support of the British Fashion Council. 

The panel discussion sparked a raft of questions from the audience but one that was of particular note was "what can be done to address the stigma of mental health issues?" 

It was a rather poignant way to end an event on World Mental Health day as it evoked a unanimous response from the panel that highlighted the power of consumer in igniting change around the stigma of mental health issues. While O’ Flynn acknowledged that we have come a long way,  he noted: 'There is still a lot to be done, we all have a role to play, as stigma is a social concept and we all have a role in diminishing its effect.' 

Nelson has taken this idea of raising the volume on mental health issues in the fashion industry to the highest echelons, the UK parliament, to call for better healthcare in the modelling industry with her petition on, a petition that is gathering strong momentum and raising awareness globally. 

Franklin highlighted that all of those in the creative system have the ability  to embolden, recognise uniqueness and show the beauty of great design. She noted: 'We are all in a space where we don’t see any of our characteristics being delivered' and that this can have an impact on mental health. Stating that: 'Skeletal is not part of the art form', as such she encouraged the audience to speak out and challenge if it doesn’t feel right, commenting that there is always room for more diversity in the fashion industry. 

The thought-provoking event brought to the fore the ongoing mental health challenges that exist in the creative industries, particularly that of the fashion industry; not least because, by its nature it is a complex, fast paced, pressurised one, however the discussion also posed suggestions for change and enhancement. The event also actioned the views of Professor Peter Kinderman, President of the British Psychological Society, who described World Mental Health day as “an opportunity for us all to remember the vital importance of our psychological wellbeing.” By having the conversation and drawing attention to this area at the London College of Fashion, in a live forum, it brought this opportunity to life and held a mirror up to the audience asking them to challenge the status quo and play a role in reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness going forward. 

Biography of panellists 

Caryn Franklin MBE, MSc, Professor of Diversity in Fashion, Kingston University. Over the last 35 years, Caryn has become known internationally as a leading fashion commentator interested in the politics of image and self-esteem as well as fashion per se.   

Rosie Nelson British model and activist for better healthcare in the modelling industry.  

Dr Annmarie Rankin is a Clinical Psychologist, who, for the past eight years, has worked at Chelsea and Westminster hospital in the field of paediatrics. Her area of expertise includes supporting children and young people with facial difference within the craniofacial clinic. Previous to becoming a clinical psychologist, Annmarie trained as a ballerina at The Royal Ballet School for eight years before going on to perform & tour with The Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and Scottish Ballet. 

Dr David O’Flynn is a Consultant Psychiatrist at South London & the Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and Chair of the Adamson Collection Trust. David is also Patron of Raw Material Music & Media, Co-Founder/Director of Innovations in Investigating Mental Health Population Outcomes (IIMHPO) and Trustee/Company Director of the Bethlem Gallery.  

Dr Carolyn Mair CPsychol, FBPsS is Reader and Subject Director Psychology at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London, where she created the world’s first Masters programmes to apply Psychology in the context of fashion. Carolyn has been awarded a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience, MSc Research Methods and BSc (Hons) Applied Psychology and Computing.