Exploring Mental Health through Art with Peter Heenan, creator of Post Pieces.
Updated: May 8
Happy New Year! We are kicking off 2021 here on Cramblings with an interview with the inspirational Peter Heenan, the creator of Post Pieces, a grassroots, non-profit that encourages people to use art to explore their mental health.
Join us as we discuss art, mental health, how helping others can help you and how on earth do you start a grass-roots organisation?
So, whenever you're ready, let's get started!
Hello Peter! Welcome to Cramblings
Hello! I’m Peter, I am an actor, theatre-maker and I also run a grassroots, non-profit called Post Pieces.
Can you tell us a little more about what Post Pieces is and what you do?
Post Pieces is a grassroots, non-profit organisation and we use art to explore mental health, so we’re all about encouraging people who have little to no experience in the arts to get involved.
That can be by using art in the broadest term; I’m not a fine artist, that’s not my skillset at all, but I found that whenever I was struggling with depression that just getting my thoughts down on paper, and making marks was really helpful.
I didn’t go to an art therapist and find this miraculous cure, it was when I was trying different things within myself to help my mental health, I stumbled across a pen and paper and found it really useful.
So where did it all begin with Post Pieces?
Being a facilitator in community arts and places where art is being used for the benefit of society is kind-of my background, so I created Post Pieces, which actually just began as a one-off little project. There was a play called ‘The Man Who Fell to Pieces’ which was about this man who was literally falling to pieces, which sparked a conversation about mental health at home which had never happened before which was interesting! And I thought about the concept of a ‘piece’ of artwork, as well as being a piece of yourself. It was one of those ideas that stuck in my head and I couldn’t quite figure out what I was going to use it for.
From that, I had the idea of a blank postcard: on the blank side of the card you can create a little piece of artwork that explores your mental health - it could be anything from a drawing or a painting, we’ve even had people stitch into them and burn them, so some really interesting stuff! And then on the back you write a message, maybe some words of hope, a mantra or something to accompany the artwork. Each one of those cards has a helpline number too.
The idea really came when I was at Drama School and there was a mental health campaign in the Students Union; there were all these flyers, I was really low but I was too embarrassed to pick up one of the flyers because it was in the students union and everyone would see me. When I did finally pick up a flyer, it ended up in the bin, so I thought: ‘How can we create something that people will keep?’
Well, people will keep a piece of artwork and if that artwork has advice and a helpline number, then it can be on hand when they, or someone close to them, needs it most. I guess, it’s a bit of a trojan horse? A piece of artwork but with this extra purpose within it.
And then, we started off with the postcards: everyone who went to see the revival of ‘The Man Who Fell to Pieces’ got a postcard, the audience members would draw on them and pin them up on the board, and people got really excited by it. So from that, and seeing the overwhelming response from the postcards, I thought: ‘I cannot just let this die, I need to invest a bit more’.
When you saw that the postcards were such a success, where did you go from there?
We branched out into workshops! My background was in theatre workshops and I thought: ‘Well, a theatre workshop and an art workshop!’ So, I got a bunch of people in a studio and we gave it a go. It was trial and error, some of them worked really well and some of them didn’t - there was a hilarious one on Valentine’s Day when I was the only one who showed up! But I thought: ‘You know what, everyone’s having their Valentine’s Day so they don’t need this, which is a good thing.’
How did it feel to run your first workshop?
I was over the moon! It felt really good because this all came from when I was at my absolute worst, and in running Post Pieces, doing workshops, as difficult as it can be and as soul destroying as admin and tax returns can be, there’s the joy of helping other people. Even if it’s only one person, there’s the joy of helping them and it helps me too, there’s a weird two-way street with it.
I can’t imagine not doing this and I don’t know how I would be in my mental health if I didn’t run Post Pieces because I’ve learnt so much from the people that we do workshops with, even if it’s just realising that people have so much more going on in their lives than we know about and to be kind, respectful and cut people some slack.
The first time we ran one, I was so nervous because I didn’t know what I was doing! People came into the studio, I got some pens and pencils, it happened and it actually went quite well! And having a great group of people there was a big part of that, so anyone who came to that first workshop I am so indebted, because you gave me the hope to try again, pick myself back up and keep going.
I’m incredibly happy with it because it came from such a dark thing and there’s a quote: ‘Art is a Wound turned into Light’ and I think that’s quite a true statement for what we do.
How do you go about starting a grassroots organisation?
Did you have an idea of how to start Post Pieces or was it a case of
‘I want to do this thing, how on earth do I do it?’ and learn as you go?
I think the idea had so long to incubate, it sat scribbled in my journal for so long. Like I said, I had the beginning of the idea when they first did that play and it wasn’t until the revival when it felt more fully formed and even looking back at that now, its changed and grown so much since then. I think I let that initial idea simmer and fester and if it’s any good then it’ll stay with me, and I do think it’s quite good! It stood the test of time.
In terms of actually starting it, it was just a lot of pretending that I knew what I was doing which then convinces other people. I found that once you have a good social media and website then people don’t realise that it’s just me, sitting in my student flat with a laptop.
Then I graduated as an actor, I was self-employed, and I got to the point where I thought: ‘There must be tax implications for this thing.’ It introduced me to the Companies House and HMRC which was confusing and I’m still grappling with. At this point, we’re too small to have an accountant and our books are tiny, but there’s a lot of emailing people for help and relying on people who have expertise.
So this year, we’re creating an unofficial board of advisors and someone’s got to be an accountant! It’s a pool of skills and knowledge: so far we’ve been going along with a pool of artists and creatives but we’ve come to a realisation that we need to cover the business side in order to really grow.
One of your Aims on the Post Pieces website is “To encourage people to engage creatively with their mental health; exploring and expressing themselves through art.” Why do you think it can be easier to express mental health through art and drawing, rather than through talking, for example?
I think, from my personal experience, art is something you can do which is very low maintenance.
So, if you’re too afraid to speak to someone else or you don’t have someone to speak to in that moment, you can very easily find a piece of paper and a pen, maybe some colouring pencils if you have them handy. So, it’s very accessible in that way and it’s not about making a masterpiece, it’s about the process of keeping you busy, I find.
This is actually something that really shocked me, and it took someone from outside Post Pieces to point it out to me. We did a 6-week programme for the Holywood Youth Centre, back in Belfast, and I couldn’t go to one of the classes I was facilitating because I was in a play, so I sent one of actresses who was also in the play in my place. She came back and said:
‘It’s really not about the art in that session; they could have created anything. But their hands were busy, so suddenly their mouths were opening up without them realising that they were saying things.’
I think creativity and art is a good way to keep yourself busy and distract yourself, so you can speak in that social setting of our workshops. I think it gives you an excuse to speak openly; I’ve found whenever we run workshops with people who would never talk about their mental health, but they do because they are prompted to through an art activity, and maybe that was the first time in their whole adult life that they’ve opened up to a group of strangers.
I do believe we need a creative approach to the mental health crisis because it’s gotten so out of hand and art is such a complimentary thing. I’m not a therapist, our sessions are not therapy but there’s definitely a therapeutic element to them in: people are expressing themselves, creating art and there’s a sense of community that builds around it as well and I think that’s something I really want to develop and grow. But, we’re small! I saw a book title the other day, something along the lines of ‘Small But Mighty’ and I thought that sums us up quite well.
I absolutely agree that we need more of a creative approach to mental health because the way that it’s currently dealt with can be quite clinical and intimidating: doctors, hospitals, offices, big words, conditions and neurological vocabulary and I can imagine that could be intimidating to people who feel they don’t have that same vocabulary to express how they feel?
Absolutely, we try to put a personal, warm front to what can still be very cold and clinical. I was so intimidated, like so many other people out there who were terrified to go to their GP whenever they needed help. You’re already feeling low if you’re struggling with your mental health, and then you have to build yourself up to phone the doctor to book an appointment which is already a big hurdle, then that appointment will be weeks down the line, then it’s the confidence of going and then on top of all that, actually having the conversation.
And I think the art that we do provides an immediate release, some of my journals are just scribbles! And it works just as well for positive feelings too: I’ve got journals filled with beautiful memories that, instead of taking a picture of, I’ve enjoyed in the moment and then went home and drew a horrible stick-drawing of my friends and I sitting around playing a board game, and it made me happy. I think that’s what we try to do: make it more personal and friendly and get it away from that hospital smelling, intimidating idea of what we think of when we say mental health.
Actually, there’s a word association exercise that we do, particularly with kids because adults can see through it, where we say ‘Mental Health’ and its always the same word associations that come up: crazy, mad - lobotomy even came up once! And that’s SO unhelpful and I think we need to edge the conversation to something we can talk about, free from fear, rather than something that most of us actually don’t even speak to doctors about, we just suffer in silence.
It’s so shocking to hear that those are still the words that young people and children associate with mental health, because It feels as though we are moving into a time where people are talking a lot more publicly about their mental health, even high-profile celebrities, but why do you think people might still feel uncomfortable or unable to express their mental health?
To be honest, I still feel uncomfortable talking about it sometimes! Probably most of the time, to be honest. I think because it’s so exposing, you’re so vulnerable when you open up and it gets so complicated – if you’ve ever experienced bouts of anxiety for example, you can work it up in your mind so much, it’s really not a big deal in reality but your brain is telling you that ‘you complain all the time’ or ‘they’re sick of listening to you’ or ‘if you open up about feeling low then they wont want to be your friend’ which is so not true, it really doesn’t work that way in reality.
How do you find navigating social media as a mental health organisation? Do you find there’s a fine line on social media between talking about mental health in positive, helpful ways and then unhelpful or triggering ways?
I’m really glad you brought that up because that’s something that doesn’t usually come up.
So, when you run something like Post Pieces, people are often like ‘Let’s talk about mental health! Let’s talk about mental health!’ and jump right into it, but there are ways to talk about things.
There are helpful ways and unhelpful ways to discuss mental health and on the Post Pieces Instagram we try to have these conversations in a safe and responsible way, be aware of what we’re sharing and how it could trigger other people.
So, for example, I remember hearing accounts of people who struggled with eating disorders who were on Tumblr, they were just being constantly triggered and they created this little cave in Tumblr in which they were only following these influencers who were influencing them in a negative way. That is something I’m really aware of when talking about mental health on social media.
We’re also not about toxic positivity, you know, telling people: ‘Only think good thoughts and you’ll be happy!’ I mean, elements of it, sure! But I think that can lead people into a false sense of ‘I’m okay!!’ when they’re really not. So, we’re not about that but we’re also not about the glorification or trivialisation of mental health issues.
Also, social media aside, I’d much rather have people in a room because these conversations are much better to have in person. I cannot wait until we can get back into a space because there’s nothing quite like looking at someone and seeing them come to a realisation about themselves, or sharing a piece of artwork or a happy memory. I think those are the conversations that we need to have: it doesn’t always need to be positive, it doesn’t always need to be negative, but as long as its honest, respectful and not done in a virtue signalling or triggering way.
I’d love to hear what you think about the generational shift with mental health attitudes, how do you feel about it, having worked with a variety of people of all ages?
The generational shift is a really interesting one; we’ve worked with people from the age of 13 to people right up into their seventies, and they’re not that different! That really shocked me, I mean, their circumstances are different but at the heart of it, their issues revolve around the same sort of thing and their artwork tends to be roughly about the same sort of thing.
There’s such a generational divide but I think there’s something vital about humanising the other and that can happen in a workshop; if you got them into a room and realised, even though you’re 13 and they’re 73, you’re really not that different. I really want to work on this and in 2021 we’re hoping to run an inter-generational project.
What are the top 5 things about running Post Pieces?
Or the best memories from your time running it?
Having a sense of purpose; as an actor, I don’t get to act all the time so I think even out of that work, I have this to keep me going.
The people. So, we have an incredible team around us: Odhran McNulty, Ro Owens and Hope Kenna and building the team took quite a while. It began as a one man show, I was frantically going around, trying to do it all, then people came to me and said they’d love to help! So we built this little internal, core community.
And the people that come to the sessions are incredible too, of course; I’ll always remember this one woman, and this is why we will always keep our workshop fees low, she came to the workshop and we all had to go around and say why we were there, she said: ‘I wanted something to do and this was cheap.’ which was great! Then, as the session went on, it turned out that her therapist had recommended that she does things in the evenings to socialise and I loved that we were the thing that was just £5 for an hour-and-a-half on a Thursday evening.
This is an amazing memory from around the time I started Post Pieces and I was grappling with sexuality, coming out and the first time I ever went to a Pride Parade was with a Post Pieces walking group back in Belfast. Myself, my mum, my dad and my sisters, all of us walking with Post Pieces signs, Pride paint and glitter on our faces, and that was really shortly after I’d just come out to them. I think that was a really big moment for me, I can’t even describe it, it just makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Off the back of that, we applied for funding to do this project, which we didn’t get but we made the project happen anyway. We drove down to Strabane and did a workshop with a group called ‘Queers Outside the City’ from the Rainbow Project and we did this hour-and-a-half long workshop with them. It was amazing that in this rural community in Ireland there was this group of LGBTQ+ people and it was incredibly heart-warming; being able to run the workshop with them, not having had a group like that growing up, that sense of community around and all feeling different in this very heteronormative world. So, getting to meet groups like that has been amazing
Lastly, I’m actually really proud of, every now and then, being able to pay an artist or a facilitator, even if its just £20 to commission someone. I get really excited because we’re all about supporting the arts community and arts sector with flexible employment. That’s really important to me.
What’s next for Post Pieces?
So, just before the first lockdown, I had put together a three year plan along with a three year financial forecast, and then Coronavirus happened and overnight, in direct cancellations, we lost £8000 of our turnover for the year.
That was soul destroying because I’d worked so hard on it and we were finally getting to the point where we were making waves and then the rug just got pulled out from under us. So, we muddled through and then eventually started doing more and more stuff again.
But looking forwards, we have funding secured to work with a group from Start360, Northern Ireland’s leading provider of support services to young people, adult offenders and families in the community. And then, we’ve got the most funding we’ve ever got, which is incredibly exciting, to work with LGBTQ+ people back in Belfast, and I’m really excited for that!
Also, this is really boring, but we’re going to file our accounts so that we can apply for more regular funding and hopefully build ourselves back up. But, you know what, that’s what Post Pieces started with: being down and picking yourself up, so it is exciting in that sense!
What do you envisage Post Pieces turning into?
I would love to create a space: a small venue where people can come together, have tea and coffee and we’d have open mic nights and a studio theatre, that’s my long-term ambition. We’re not just about drawing but art in the broader sense, so I’d love to have a little community space where we can explore theatre, poetry, music, mime, anything! That’s the exciting thing: it can go in any direction, but always with that core belief of encouraging people to engage creatively with their mental health.
If you and Post Pieces could change the world on a grand scale, what would you want to do?
I would want – so many things! It would be to have a more open and honest public conversation about mental health and to do that through art. So, a big part of that is access to the arts, and I think that’s what I would want to achieve because there’s so many barriers into the arts, and people really do try, but I still feel uncomfortable in venues sometimes.
I remember I was rehearsing a play in a venue, in my tracksuit bottoms and rehearsal clothes, I went downstairs into the venue whilst there was a play on and everyone was done up to the nines and I felt out of place in, even though I was working in the venue!
There’s so much snobbery around certain things, people feeling like they don’t belong and I think I would have everyone feel that they belong in the arts, the freedom to try different things and still be rubbish at it but do it anyway. My creative drawing skills aren’t great but I can think creatively so I feel like I’ve found my role.
But yes, if I could change the world, it’d be access to the arts.
Finally, if people want to get involved, how can they do that?
So many ways!
You can follow us on Instagram @postpieces, we’re also on Twitter and Facebook. We have a website which you can go and check out!
If you want to support us, and also help your own mental health, we have an Etsy page where we sell journals; inside each journal you get hand-written prompts throughout the book, a print from an artist called Ro Owens and a crisis card. They’re £8 and all of the money goes back into our projects.
If you want to take it further, we’ve even had people do spontaneous fundraisers for us which is incredible because we are so small and we struggle to do that ourselves. We are truly low maintenance, so every penny really does count.
Or even just create a piece of artwork and share it with us. You can email us, we’ll send you prompts that you can create a piece of artwork from and then share it with us.
Links to all of the above are down below.
Thank you so much for joining us Peter!
If you would like to find out more about Post Pieces and the work that they do,
here are some useful links:
Buy a Post Pieces Journal; https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/PostPieces
If you feel you need further help with your mental health, or any of the issues we mentioned,
you can also seek help and advice in the following places:
Shout - 24/7 Free UK Text Counselling Service: https://giveusashout.org/