Angela Awuah, founder of Mental Health: The Arts
“If I was to describe myself in one word, I would say… empathetic, because I’ve gone through a lot, and I’ve been able to help people and really empathise with their situations.”
Angela Awuah is the founder of Mental Health: The Arts, an early intervention creative arts academy for young people between the ages of 13-25 years old with direct or indirect experiences of mental health.
“Having had suicidal thoughts and going through phases of depression has allowed me to support people that are going through similar challenges, by empathising with them but also helping them manage their own emotions.”
As young carer to her mother, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, Angela understands the severe, significant, and long-lasting impact it can have on a young person’s health and well-being.
She says: “When I was younger, I was a very reserved shy person. I was never an extrovert, but I grew up in a home where there was domestic violence, and often a lot of anger. So I used to suppress a lot of this anger and I never really knew how to speak to anybody about it. In our culture it tends to be a case of ‘whatever happens at home, stays at home’ and so even if I needed help, there wasn’t anybody that I could go to speak to.
“In my teenage years I remember being really angry and people always saying that I was moody, and I’d be thinking that it’s not that I’m moody, there’s just a lot going on at home that I couldn’t really talk about. So there would be certain instances where I would get into trouble for something and the way I’d react would be way over what I was getting told off for, and that was because of what was going on at home.”
Angela said her school was not very supportive. With no one to talk to, she quickly became suicidal.
She says: “I hated myself, and was being bullied at a point as well and called ugly a lot, so I grew up really unhappy. There were phases where I was quite depressed and I just hated my life, everything about it. My parents couldn’t afford to give me some of the things that I really wanted like the latest trainers or handbags, so that made me even more depressed. I was jealous of my friends around me as it seemed like they had the perfect life, the perfect mum and dad, and siblings, and it was just me going through all this. There was a lot of conflict at home at the time.”
It was during university – her first time living away from home – that Angela’s mother began showing signs of paranoid schizophrenia. She became “very aggressive” and things began to take its toll.
“My dad had lost his job during the recession, so we were more or less on benefits and had to rely on my mum. In my second year at university, the day after Mother’s Day, I remember not being able to get hold of her, so I called my dad.
“He told me that she’d been taken. I didn’t understand what that meant, and he explained that the police had come and that she had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. That was the beginning of a purpose, in a way. I became the main carer for her, which was really tough.”
The number of recognised young carers in the UK has risen by more than 10,000 in four years, prompting concerns that they are taking up the slack from increasingly pressured adult social care services.
Angela understands the importance of providing emotional support to young carers, who are particularly vulnerable due to the nature of their caring responsibilities.
Her social enterprise Mental Health: The Arts is an organisation that works with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to develop creative coping mechanisms through their talks, workshops and The Arts programme.
“At the moment I’m doing talks and workshops with businesses. An organisation would ask me to do a workshop with a group of young people, but we’re trying to change it to a 12-week programme that focuses on a holistic approach where they pick a specific art that they want to focus on and over the course of three months, they work have counselling, life coaching, and nutrition sessions. Once they finish, they’ll do a show and if we can help we try to partner with organisations to provide them with employment or further education.
Juggling full-time work with caring for her mother brings its own challenges, “Mainly finding the time to set aside and work on Mental Health: The Arts without feeling tired.”
However, Angela is determined to continue working hard to achieve her goals. She is unwavering in her aims to raise awareness against stigma and discrimination towards mental health and encourage young people to use their gifts and talents to express themselves.
“Success is the smiles that I see on the young people’s faces when I’ve taught them how to use their own gifts and talents to help themselves when they’re going through crises.”
She says: “Success is the smiles that I see on the young people’s faces when I’ve taught them how to use their own gifts and talents to help themselves when they’re going through crises. Also in having young people come and speak to me about their issues that they’d maybe never have spoken to anyone about. So it’s not about the money, it’s about seeing their hearts change and seeing them use what they already have in their lives, rather than trying to find help and there not being any help at all.
“Hopefully the future is bright. I would like to travel around the world; teaching young people how to create their own coping mechanisms in different parts of the world mental health isn’t spoken about, it’s still a massive taboo subject and actually teaching them what mental health is.
“For Mental Health: The Arts, I’d like to take it to different parts of the UK as well – so with the model that I have currently, I’d like to franchise it across the country and really build a team that is willing to support young people, anywhere. It doesn’t have to be in a workshop, it could be at a party, at church, in any group. People that can champion young people, want the best for them, and want them to reach their full potential.”
Angela is determined to use her knowledge and experience to share her story on a global scale and support foreign governments with local policy making.
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