The art of making social connections

People who are socially connected recover faster and more effectively from disasters. However, some people with mental health issues might struggle to make those social connections. How can we help those people, so they are better prepared when there is an emergency?

Christchurch community organisation Ōtautahi Creative Spaces has found an answer using art. In 2016, with funding from New Zealand Red Cross, they started Creative Stations – weekly creative drop-in workshops for people with anxiety, social, and mental health challenges – at Aranui Library.

Creative Stations is centred around a different theme or technique every week, and participants are free to create whatever they like. The free workshops offer an opportunity to de-stress, increase confidence and self-esteem, and break social isolation. Encouragement and support from the workshop leaders are key elements of the sessions.

Three key people in the project, Kim Morton and Alexia Martin from Creative Spaces and Kirsten Smith from Aranui Library, enthusiastically describe the project’s success.

“We make it inviting and welcoming,” says lead art worker Alexia. “We don’t tell people what to do but ask what they want to do. We work alongside them as they explore their creativity at their own pace. Creating has made it safer to talk.”

“The pilot at the Aranui library was about building relationships and trust,” says Creative Spaces manager Kim. “Travelling across town can make these people quite anxious. With local projects, they can connect locally. People come to the Creative Stations and feel they are part of something; it’s a social connection they’ve not had before.”

Associate Team Leader at Aranui Library, Kirsten Smith adds: “The library is considered a neutral space and the activities there are seen as ‘safe’ by the community.

Kim says there have been plenty of success stories from the initiative, with participants gaining confidence, developing friendships, sharing their experience of the earthquakes and supporting each other through difficult times.

“It’s also been a stepping stone for participating in other community activities and we’ve seen the emergence of leaders who have made fantastic contributions as volunteers in their communities.”

The culmination of months of working with the artists was reached in June with an exhibition of artwork. Many of the artists sold works there.

“It was the ultimate confidence boost for them and we are immensely proud of our participants,” Kim says.

This year we are funding a range of community initiatives that build social connectedness, with a particular focus on vulnerable people. One of these projects funds the expansion of the Creative Spaces project to other Christchurch libraries such as those in Peterborough St, Shirley, and New Brighton.