Case study: How Arts Sisterhood was founded to battle mental illness

Ali Strick set up the organisation three years ago to help with her own battle against mental illness, but also to do something productive at the same time

Participants created this artwork, on the question 'how does the male gaze make you feel?', at an event hosted by Arts Sisterhood (Photograph: Debora Katia Tutta)
Participants created this artwork, on the question 'how does the male gaze make you feel?', at an event hosted by Arts Sisterhood (Photograph: Debora Katia Tutta)

When Ali Strick was battling her own mental health issues three years ago, she struggled to find a project that met her needs. "I really wanted to go somewhere like a community place where I could address my mental health issues, but also to do something productive," she says.

Most of the support on offer was either expensive or aimed at a different demographic, such as children. Strick felt none of the options available were right for her. "It just didn’t seem appealing to the kind of woman that I am, which is a young, creative, modern millennial," she says.

She didn’t want something that made her feel abnormal, which led her to take the bold step to found Arts Sisterhood in 2016, a women’s-only art therapy project based in London.

At the time, Strick (left) was a member of an online forum on Facebook aimed at women in the UK with mental illnesses. She used the online platform as a way to investigate what type of project other women would be interested in. Her idea of running an art therapy project was a popular choice. "Everybody commented, saying ‘yes, that’s amazing. I’d love that.’"

The classes run on an ad-hoc basis, operating from locations such as DIY Space For London in South Bermondsey and CLF Arts Cafe in Peckham. During the sessions, participants are encouraged to express their feelings through painting.

Strick’s sessions address themes such as mental health, feminism, politics and world issues. She chooses divisive issues because those are what affect people.

The classes are affordable and accessible: sessions cost no more than £5 for two hours and some who cannot afford the fee attend for free. The venues chosen have wheelchair access and are located close to transport links. Any women, including transgender women, can attend.

The project receives no public funding. Instead it is partly funded by the session fees and by Strick, who works freelance in the fashion industry. In addition, she receives support from a range of volunteers, including art students, care workers and people she befriended on Facebook. "They change every now and then so I’m the main person behind it," she says. "There is no one who works alongside me."

Strick would prefer to run the sessions weekly and work on the project full-time, but that’s not feasible at present.

She also continues to face her own mental health challenges, which can make running the project tough. "I’m not okay every day," she says. "Sometimes it’s hard even reply to emails. I can go from being really on top of things to being completely introvert and unable to speak to people. Then I’m having to address a room of 200."

She often feels misunderstood. "I don’t feel like I come across in the right way," she says. "People think I am a ‘normal’ person who is running a charity, and I’m not".

She has also had to contend with complaints about excluding men from her sessions, but she believes that allowing men to attend would change the atmosphere. However, despite the challenges, she says there is a clear need for her work. Her sessions generally sell out within hours of going online.

Strick has run workshops in venues such as Tate Modern and the Barbican. Debora Tutta, digital producer at the youth theatre company Boundless Theatre, which worked with Strick on a project at the Barbican, says her project has "gained the support of like-minded women" and Strick "truly cares about supporting women".

Strick says her work is clearly fulfilling an unmet need for women in need of support. "I’ve had so many people come up to me and send me messages and emails," she says. "People who have been sectioned would come. I had so many amazing responses from people and I’ve realised that art workshops, art classes and art therapy should be regularly available and accessible at all times. It is so beneficial for people’s mental health and wellbeing. Not only does it tackle existing mental illnesses, but it also prevents them."

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