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5 August 2021

Amy Winehouse and her legacy: arts, addiction and mental health

David Cutler
The BBC's excellent documentary 'Reclaiming Amy' is not only a moving tribute, but a timely reminder of the importance of participatory arts for people living with addiction, and the need to support artists' mental health.

I have been watching the documentary ‘Reclaiming Amy’ on the BBC to mark the tenth anniversary of the death of singer Amy Whitehouse from accidental alcohol poisoning. It is a deeply moving and thought-provoking film.

My first and strongest reaction was what a hugely gifted singer song-writer Amy was and how wrong it would be to reduce her complex life of great achievements, deep friendships and struggles to her relationship with drugs and alcohol. The film also shows the heart-breaking impact of her death on her friends and families and describes how unjustly they feel they have been treated by the media. Her parents have created the Amy Winehouse Foundation which is undertaking great work with young people who are vulnerable or struggling, in the Caribbean as well as the UK.

Another point for me was how much more needs to be done to research and support artists, not only around recovery from addiction, but also mental health problems more generally. This was the case before the pandemic and is surely even more true now. A survey by Help Musicians UK found that 87% of respondents said that their mental health had deteriorated during the pandemic. Anecdotally, many performers, especially actors and musicians have said to me that there are factors that make alcohol and substance abuse more likely, especially on tour. This seems to be recognised by musicians in particular. The Royal Northern College of Music has created a lectureship in mental health. Help Musicians UK has set up the Music Minds Matter initiative which offers free a free 24-hour help line. In 2018, the Irish national mental health charity, Inspire, published a study of over 500 artists across a range of art forms and throughout the island of Ireland. It included questions on alcohol and drug use and showed worryingly high levels of mental health problems. This needs to be replicated across the UK – including specific reference to drugs and alcohol – and acted upon.

Especially relevant here, is the great work by a small group of innovative and exciting arts organisations who are specialising in creatively engaging people who are recovering from addiction, the first three of which we support financially:

  • Fallen Angels Dance Theatre: unique in specialising in dance with people recovering from addictions, Fallen Angels was set up in 2011 by professional dancers Paul Bayes Kitcher and Claire Morris. Paul formed the company drawing on his own lived experience. Fallen Angels is the company in residence at the new Storyhouse arts centre in Chester. While their digital outreach in international, the company runs groups in Liverpool and in Leigh, as well as Chester.
  • The New Note Orchestra: describing itself as the ‘world’s first recovery orchestra’, New Note is based in Brighton and uses storytelling as well as music. It continues to develop new projects, such as the weekly guitar group, the New Note Strummers. The organisation was set up by Molly Mathieson who was inspired by a Channel 4 documentary she made in 2014 called Addicts’ Symphony, which grew out of the experiences of addiction of musician James McConnel and his son Freddy who died from an overdose.
  • Outside Edge Theatre: describing itself as the UK’s only theatre focused on addiction, including the effects of addiction on family members and carers, Outside Edge recently moved from West to East London. It was set up twenty years ago by Phil Fox, an actor with lived experience of addiction. Peer-led drama workshops are the heart of is work, but it also trains professionals on issues around working with people recovering from addiction.
  • Portraits of Recovery: a Manchester based charity founded in 2011 by Mark Prest which engages people and communities affected by addiction through working with contemporary visual art and artists.
  • We Are Not Saints: this is the world’s first not-for-profit record label working exclusively with musicians in recovery. The agency was founded by Director Chris De Banks in 2016 when he found his sobriety and after twenty years’ experience in the music industry.

The Baring Foundation believes that we all have a human right to creativity. However, the experience of these organisations show the contribution arts can make to people’s recovery journeys. You can read, for example, more about the impact The New Note Orchestra have here, with 86% of participants saying they felt taking part had strengthened their recovery, as well as the important task of humanising what recovery from drug and alcohol addiction looks like, and building tolerance and understanding among audiences.

And let’s not forget that some addiction recovery organisations have creative programmes, often using the skills of professional artists. Examples include The Together Project and Recovery Street Film Festival at Phoenix Futures and the Rising Voices Choir at the Bristol Drug Project.

Amy Winehouse was a great artist who has many aspects to her legacy, not least her immortal music, but perhaps part of her legacy can be greater support for artists struggling with drug and alcohol use – and greater use of participatory arts for anyone recovering from addiction.