Why The Arts Matter: Headway

With the help of an Arts Council grant, Headway, the UK brain injury charity, aims to help sufferers through the arts. Joe Nawaz visits their Belfast offices

HeadwayThe brain is a fiendishly unpredictable instrument, as vitally complex as it is precariously fragile. When someone sustains brain injury, they may often find themselves having to adjust to an opaque world of constant unknowing.

Depending on the part of the brain affected, functions that we can all take for granted such as memory, motor ability, speech and even self-awareness are some of the functions that can be snatched away in an instant.

That 2000 people a year in Northern Ireland alone sustain some kind of brain injury may be a shocking statistic. That a majority of the victims happen to be young men in road traffic accidents may not be as surprising, but no less tragic for it. Family members, in turn, prove to be casualties as much as the injured party themselves.

That’s where Headway, the brain injury charity, comes in. From offices in east Belfast, the organisation has for years offered a series of programmes and therapies to its members and provided support for families and carers.

Art is the most recent resource to be deployed by Headway in the fight to rehabilitate brain injury survivors. Thanks to a recent Arts Council of Northern Ireland Small Grant Fund of £6,500, Headway members can now take part in a number of visual arts, drama and photography workshops.

Director Fiona McCabe, who instigated the arts programme (a part of the organisation’s wider rehabilitative Star Project) earlier this year, says she believes the benefits will be considerable. 'We engage in all sorts of activities here, from taking groups bowling to simply going to the shops. We’re trying as best we can to reintegrate people back into community life.

'I thought that art would be a fantastic vehicle to help in that rehabilitation both in group work and in a personal way. Any form of the arts is going to enable people to express themselves in a creative way, so we’re delighted to be able to offer that outlet to our members.'

One such programme already in place at Headway involves artist Kathy Walsh instructing a group of members in a collage and drama workshop with facilitator Orla McKegney. McCabe reveals that, if all goes to plan, Headway also aim to introduce music, creative blogging and online networking workshops. They also plan to fit out a mini-gym as part of their expansion into arts and physical activity.

So far 60 people have taken part in this series of new art workshops, which are, according to the Headway website, 'designed to improve emotional health and social skills by promoting creativity'.

Edel Murphy, a programme officer with ACNI, enthusiastically agrees with that sentiment. 'Research has shown that many people who engage in arts activity experience a range of benefits, including increased self confidence, better concentration and improved ability to make decisions. We can see that Headway is delivering a programme that clearly demonstrates the positive impact that arts can have on health.'

Working with people with acquired brain injury requires an awareness of the vagaries of the condition. Sustained head injury has been described as 'the invisible disability', and to the untrained eye the behavioural idiosyncrasies of sufferers are not always immediately obvious.

Artists taking part in Headway’s workshops, therefore, must first go through a mandatory training programme and it can be a real eye-opener for the unsuspecting, as McCabe explains:

'Somebody with an acquired brain injury may stand a little too close to you or may say something inappropriate. You can tell them what they’ve done, they’ll apologise and then two minutes later they’ll have forgotten and do it again. Short-term memory loss is a huge issue with a lot of people suffering from brain injury, while some may not even be aware of the actual extent or nature of their condition.

'Instructors also have to be alert to the fact that sufferers may become aware over the course of time. That can be very traumatic and artists working with our members need to be aware of all of these things.'

Looking at a collection of members’ paintings in the lobby of the Headway offices, what is striking about them is that there is no small amount of passion and even touches of brilliance in much of the work. Bold colour, optimism and a certain charming vibrancy dominates even the most pedestrian of the dozens of representations of flora and fauna (members were painting in oils in a day trip to the park) on display.

'Some of the works that our members have produced in the art workshops are startling,' says a clearly impressed McCabe. And she’s right. The work is all the more impressive because members are not always forthcoming in engaging with such programmes, because of the often repressive nature of their condition.

One can’t help thinking that these paintings probably compare rather favourably (in terms of inspiring wonder, at any rate) to another, slightly more star-studded artistic exhibition to be held on behalf of Headway.

The Christmas 200 exhibition, which will be taking place in November in the Canvas Arts Gallery on Belfast’s Stranmillis Road, consists of work by 100 local artists such as Tim Weir, Leo Casement, George Henry Smith and Terry Bradley. They have been commissioned to produce 200 original pieces of art, each of which will retail at £250, with the profits going to support the work of Headway.

For McCabe - as for many officers working in the charitable, voluntary and arts sectors - corporate financial opportunities mean a rare chance to increase funding, and just as importantly, awareness about Headway's work.

'Acquired brain injury can destroy people's lives overnight. It strikes families, rips them apart and the knock-on affect is huge,' says McCabe. 'My job is to make people aware of just what it would mean if it were to happen to your or a loved one, and also to make people aware that Headway exists to offer support.

'Art can play such an important part in people’s rehabilitation, we’d love the resources to continue to build on the start we’ve made this year.'

To find out more about the Headway arts workshop programme, or if you would like to register for the private viewing of the Christmas 200 exhibition on November 10 visit http://www.headwayni.org.