Judge of Guislan Awards on the power of words to heal troubled minds

Summary

American author Siri Hustvedt sits on the jury of the annual Dr Guislain Award, an initiative based at the eponymous Ghent museum that aims to lessen the stigma of mental health around the world

Into the light

“We are not transparent to ourselves. We have intuitions, suspicions, hunches, vague musings, and strangely mixed emotions, all of which resist simple definition,” write Alain de Botton and John Armstrong in Art as Therapy, a 2013 book that echoed some of the ideas American author Siri Hustvedt had been toying with for a number of years.

Hustvedt taught creative writing to patients at the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in New York from 2006 to 2010, believing that writing can bring about healing. She is also one of the judges of the Dr Guislain Award, an annual international initiative by Ghent’s Museum Dr Guislain.

A museum of psychiatry as well as outsider art, the Guislain is located inside a former asylum and sponsors the award together with Janssen Research and Development. Worth $50,000, it is presented every year to a person or an organisation that works to lessen the stigma linked to mental illnesses.

Previous winners include photographer and documentary filmmaker Robin Hammond of New Zealand and Matrika Devkota, the founder of Nepalese advocacy organisation Koshish.

Unpredictable

Why would Hustvedt, a novelist with a PhD in English, have such an interest in psychiatry and mental illness? “I discovered that writing truly does have a therapeutic value for psychiatric patients,” she says. “I saw it in my classes, and I have been thinking through why it has the benefits it does. I believe these benefits are achieved by all forms of artistic practice.”

For almost as long as she can remember Hustvedt (pictured) has lived with migraines, with their unpredictable and blinding pain, which inspired an interest in anatomy and physiology from an early age. In 2006, she suffered a seizure from the neck down and recorded her experience in The Shaking Woman or the Story of My Nerves.

It was her curiosity and desire to make the world question the boundary between “normal” and “abnormal” that led the Ghent museum to invite her to join the jury when the awards were launched in 2012. 

Ambiguity is uncomfortable. It’s like an itch in our thought processes, and the continual scratching of that itch is annoying

- Siri Hustvedt

“The award has not only been given to art therapy causes,” Hustvedt explains. “It has also been given to individuals or groups that foster the diminishment of stigma still attached to mental illness everywhere – although in some cultures it is far worse than in others.”

It is crucial to understand, she emphasises, that having a mental illness doesn’t make someone stupid or ignorant: “There are other causes for those afflictions. Countless people with psychiatric diagnoses are creative and original,” she says. “No doubt, this truth comes from both the physiological realities of their illness and from their experience as marginal in a given culture.”

Life can be complex, and simple rules are full of exceptions. Contradictions abound. In Hustvedt’s classes in New York there were always patients who were relieved to be in the hospital, while others couldn’t wait to get out.

The right word

She thinks that humans have trouble dealing with ambiguity. “It’s uncomfortable,” she says. “It’s like an itch in our thought processes, and the continual scratching of that itch is annoying. We want it to end.”

Although we’re looking for certainty, she continues, “embracing ambiguity is important because it means being open to new thoughts, and it keeps us humble in the face of the astonishing complexity of the human experience”.

Can an initiative like the Dr Guislain Award help reduce the number of suicides, a topic Hustvedt has written a lot about? “Suicide is very difficult to parse,” she says. “My intense reading on the subject left me in awe of the complexities involved.”

Despair and suicide, she says, are linked, “but despair, like happiness, is not a permanent condition. For people with mental illness who are also suicidal, the right word at the right time or some form of dialogue or intervention can – and has – prevented a person from taking her or his own life.”

Nominations for the Guislain award are open until 16 April, with the winner announced in October.