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Is it normal to be psychotic?

Developing an immersive art installation to increase public awareness of what it is like to experience psychotic symptoms – hearing voices, having visions and other similar sensory experiences and believing others are trying to harm you


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Is it 'normal' to be psychotic? aimed to provoke debate around whether what is often considered to be ‘abnormal’ and only experienced by ‘crazy people’ is actually part of the ‘normal’ human experience and occurs in the general population. By improving understanding of these experiences it hoped to reduce the stigma associated with psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia and increase the speed with which individuals who are affected seek help and support.

To do so the project developed an immersive art installation, informed by workshops run by The Voice Collective (part of Camden Mind). The installation involved several young people who themselves hear voices, have visions and other sensory experiences. Jonny Benjamin, a prominent mental health campaigner who was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, also provided input into the project by sharing his own experiences and expertise in engaging with the public on mental health issues. 

Through a range of creative mediums these young people shared what it is like to undergo these experiences with artist Rich Maskey, who created the installation. Those involved provided feedback on the installation throughout its development to ensure an authentic immersive experience was created.

For more up-to-date information on the project, please visit the Altered States of Consciousness website.


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Project outcomes

An immersive art installation, titled Altered states of consciousness, was exhibited at the Copeland Gallery in Peckham between 18 – 21 January 2017.

Altered states of consciousness provided visitors with an opportunity to challenge their own perceptions of mental health and normality, allowing them to appreciate what it feels like to hear voices, see visions and have other unusual sensory experiences. It provided the 190 visitors with immersive experiences involving individualised voice-hearing simulations (performed by concealed actors) in real-world settings (an art gallery and tube station) followed by small group discussions led by researchers and individuals with lived experiences.

The exhibition, produced by Phoebe Roberts and curated by Samir Ceric, was the result of a collaboration between Dr Helen Fisher, Senior Lecturer & MQ Fellow at King’s College London; artists Rich Maskey, Toby Brown, and Felicity Jones; mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin MBE; the Voice Collective, a London-wide project that supports children and young people with unusual sensory experiences; and Debut Contemporary gallery. The initiative came about as part of the Arts, Health & Wellbeing programme at King’s that explores how the arts can enhance health and wellbeing in clinical and care settings, developing new conversations and collaborations, with support from MQ. More information about Dr Fisher's MQ research is available  here.


Dr Helen Fisher said about the exhibition: ‘Ultimately, we hope this project will have helped breakdown the stigma associated with hearing voices and seeing visions.  A major focus of my MQ Fellow's Award is to increase public understanding of the importance of conducting research into these unusual sensory experiences and this immersive art exhibition provided the ideal avenue through which to both engage the public with my research and to provoke debate about current conceptualisations of normality. I also believe that working with artists and young people who have these experiences can bring new perspectives to my work and lead to the emergence of novel avenues for extending research in this area.’

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Speaking ahead of the launch of the new exhibition, Samir Ceric, Founder & CEO of Debut Contemporary said: 'When approached by Rich and Helen to participate in the project as a curator of an exhibition on mental health, including the works of one of our star artists, Toby Brown, I was both touched and inspired by this wonderful initiative. Being able to 'use' art to engage, inspire, empower and raise awareness behind mental illness is both a privilege as well as a responsibility of professionals in this field as mental illness relates to us all. I truly believe that such projects can have a huge positive impact on those who are suffering with mental illness, the people around them and on society as a whole.’

Since the project completed, there have been two academic journal publications produced based on the exhibition:

Altered States of Consciousness: Evaluation of a voice-hearingsimulation during an immersive art exhibition

Development, implementation and evaluation of Altered States of Consciousness: an immersive art exhibition, designed to increase public awareness of psychotic experiences

Politicians, journalists and celebrities were also given a brief version of the immersive experience during a recent MQ-sponsored event at the House of Commons to raise awareness of young people’s mental health problems. The project team will also present the exhibition and have a panel discussion on it at the forthcoming Arts in Mind festival at the IoPPN in June 2018 .


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Project team

Dr Helen Fisher – Senior Lecturer and MQ Fellow in the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry (SGDP) research centre at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), King's College London. Helen is the project's academic lead. She has 15 years’ experience in early psychosis research, both in evaluating services for young people and in investigating the role of childhood maltreatment and genetic factors in the development and course of psychosis. Her current research, funded by the MQ mental health charity, aims to uncover the factors that increase the risk of maltreated children developing psychotic symptoms (hearing voices, having visions, feeling paranoid) as well as factors that protect them from having such experiences in order to inform preventive interventions. More information about Dr Fisher's MQ research is available here@HelenLFisher

Rich Maskey – a freelance content producer who has worked in the media industry for 5 years shooting, lighting and producing films. Rich is the project's artistic lead. He is always looking to develop new ways to engage and communicate with an audience. An emerging branch of his work uses the latest digital lighting technology and custom computer code to create interactive, site-specific installations at festivals, live shows and events – the most recent being part of an artist’s pop-up for London Design Week. He has a degree in biosciences and an on-going interest in mental health and the way it is communicated in the media.  @RichMaskey

The project team also comprises:

Jonny Benjamin – one of the UK’s best known and most influential mental health campaigners and vloggers who has lived experience of psychosis and extensive experience of engaging the public with mental health issues (see the documentary he created about his own suicide attempt). He is the Cross Platform Producer at Postcard Productions, an award-winning small independent production company based in London, and specialises in producing cross platform content which engages with social change and advising on implementation of social media in communications.

The Voice Collective at Mind in Camden – a London-wide project that supports children and young people who hear voices, see visions or have other unusual sensory experiences. They have brought together a group of young people with who want to challenge the stigma surrounding hearing voices and seeing visions and use their own experiences and creativity to develop ways of raising awareness, challenge misconceptions and help other young people to get the confidence to reach out for help if they need it.

Is it ‘normal’ to be psychotic? is a collaboration between King's College London’s Social, Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry Centre and artist Rich Maskey. It was supported by the university's Culture team.

Additional funding for the project has been provided by MQ: Transforming mental health.

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