Artist and activist Sanchita Islam speaks to Priya Kulasagaran about how her mental health fuels her work
“I think being in constant mental pain, my brain turns to art to ameliorate that pain,” says Sanchita Islam. “But I can never produce enough art, or writing, or music. It’s like a drug, because you want the pain to go away, so you do more and more work.”
An artist, filmmaker, writer and mental health advocate, this is what Islam credits to her prolific artistic output to – emotional trauma. She has participated in 100 solo and group shows and film screenings globally; published nine books; directed and produced 15 films; and carried out international art projects. She is a dedicated mother to two young children. She also happens to be diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.
Schizoaffective disorder causes a person to experience a combination of symptoms such as hallucinations or delusions, and mood disorder symptoms like depression or mania. In Islam’s case, visual and auditory hallucinations are what she has to deal with if her condition deteriorates – and she’s learnt enough about herself to work her way through it. She explains the personalities she has given these manifestations (“Fred is the dark side”), and the added stigma of eschewing medication.
“I know it’s a controversial point to make, but I am not on medication because it works for me,” she says. “What I need are empathetic people who understand my triggers, minimise my stress, observe my diet, stay hydrated, exercise, practise meditation, control my breathing and I’ll be fine. I don’t drink or do drugs; that’s a no brainer. And yes, not everyone can do that, and it’s not easy to be so disciplined, but I have learnt the hard way that this is what works for me.”
Brought up in the United Kingdom, Islam’s father died when she was just eight-months-old. Her mother remarried, but life as an Asian immigrant family in Thatcher-era England was arduous. “I grew up with a shadow of melancholy, and it was a turbulent household, but I don’t blame anyone. There was a lot of financial pressure, and stress. I was bullied in school because I was different. The world was a hostile place, and I didn’t know if I would amount to anything,” says Islam.
Setting aside her artistic ambitions for her family’s sake, Islam applied and received a conditional offer from Oxford University. “But while I was studying for my A Levels in the public library, I was sexually assaulted and it just shattered me; but I buried it and carried on. I ended up dropping a grade, and lost my place at Oxford,” shares Islam.
To placate her parents, she then applied to the London School of Economics (LSE) at the University of London, and graduated with a degree in International History as well as a masters in Comparative Politics. She subsequently earned a Channel 4 bursary to complete an MA in Directing and Screenwriting. After a short stint working in television, she enrolled for an art degree. She dropped out in her second year, as she couldn’t fit in, and was already exhibiting through her own art company Pigment Explosion. Throughout this impressive list of achievements, Islam was silently battling her inner demons.
“Those four years at LSE, I was just going downhill – even in art school, I was an outsider,” she says. “I was 25 when I set up Pigment Explosion, and very quickly started exhibiting. I was getting lots of grants and commissions, and doing live painting events, but I still wasn’t addressing my mental health. It was always there simmering in the background, waiting to implode.”
As Islam’s career progressed upwards, so did the pressure. While her work dealt with some of the most disadvantaged communities – the homeless, street children, battered women and the mentally ill – she was also navigating high profile society types. “I felt torn between the pressure, and feeling this responsibility to use my education and art to document stories of the marginalised,” adds Islam.
Islam also started noticing that her depression had mutated into a different beast. “I oscillated between suicidal ideation to extreme mania. When I was manic, I’d be talking really fast, engaging in reckless behaviour like cycling dangerously and having no fear. That was my life – very extreme, exciting, and hard,” she says. It was around this time that she sought medical help, and found herself diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in 2003.
Art, motherhood, and advocacy
In 2009, Islam was scheduled to have an exhibition off Brick Lane in London. A specific sector of the Bangladeshi arts community however, threatened to boycott the exhibition, leading to its cancellation. Islam thinks perhaps the experience of being rejected by her community was one of the key contributing factors to her first psychosis.
“The thing is, since I was diagnosed, no one told me what psychosis was. And when I fell pregnant in 2010, at no point did any psychiatrist tell me that I could be vulnerable to postpartum psychosis because of my (mental health) history,” says Islam.
Like many women who have suffered maternal mental illness, Islam found herself alone in the terror of her visions. “Three days after my baby was born, I had a kettle in my room and had visions of pouring boiling water on my newborn. I knew I wasn’t going to, but they were still gruesome – and I felt like I was abandoned by the mental health services, because they didn’t know how to handle me. That’s what motivated me to write my book and start campaigning,” says Islam. The book Islam refers to is Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too, a stark and moving account of her battles with postpartum psychosis she wrote under the pseudonym Q S Lam.
Islam’s main message with her campaigning is to educate people about mental health “the same way we teach people the importance of washing hands for personal hygiene”. “If my children can understand it so well, why can’t other people?” adds Islam. “I cannot bear to let another person go through what I have gone through alone. That’s what keeps me going; the thought that if I can reach even just one person with my work, through my art, or my films, or my music. So many people who have my disorder end up jobless, or homeless, or abused or dead. My message is that there is hope, and support, and to show others that people like us can make it; we can do amazing things if society allows us to.”