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Students with PTSD discover the healing power of art

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Published on 18 January 2022

Su Devine and Simon Green
Su Devine and Simon Green

Mature students Simon Green and Su Devine come from very different walks of life, but they have one thing in common – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Simon was diagnosed with PTSD after leaving the Army, while Su’s diagnosis came following an incident in her former career.

But studying at the University of Sunderland has helped them both transform their lives.

Simon’s Journey

Simon returned to university after spending time as a surveillance photographer in the Army. As part of his time in the Forces, he served operational tours of Bosnia in 1996 and Northern Ireland, between 1996 and 2002.

Simon left the Army in 2002 but it wasn’t until around 10 years later he was diagnosed with PTSD, isolating himself away from people and suffering a huge breakdown in confidence.

So, applying to the University of Sunderland was his way of helping wipe the slate clean and starting again.

But less than two years into his Photography, Video and Digital Imaging degree, his wife Suzanna sadly passed away after a short battle with cancer.

Simon documented his beloved wife’s heartbreaking struggle and the final days of her life in his photography project ‘20 Days’.

Thanks to the support from the University’s Wellbeing Team and student and financial services, Simon managed to find the light at the end of the tunnel and graduate in 2020. He then decided to stay on at Sunderland and study a Fine Art MA.

The dad-of-two is now in his fifth year at the University studying a PGCE in Post-Compulsory Education and Training and plans to study a PhD.

Simon, 48, from Consett, County Durham, said: “I strived for years to overcome my mental health issues, but nothing seemed to work.

“The biggest thing that was missing from my life was a challenge, something to rise to and to put everything into. I don’t think I’d really had that since I left the Army. University has given me the challenge I was looking for. The Army challenged me in many ways. I worked in environments that were incredibly dangerous, high adrenaline and under incredible pressure. University challenged me creatively, academically and revealed skills that I never knew I had.

“I started university with no confidence at all, in myself or my work, so it has been a benchmark for me, bringing together a lifetime of skills and experience and really making me aware of what I am capable of.”

Simon is now teaching photography on a regular basis and, with the help of the University’s Enterprise Place, has started up his own photography business SR4 Photography.

Su’s Journey

At 50-years-old, Su, from Whitley Bay, came to study her passion later in life, graduating from the University last year with a First Class degree in Fine Art

Mental health is very much the central theme for Su’s work.

After being diagnosed with PTSD following a work-related incident in 2017, Su didn’t leave the house for many months and even now can struggle going out alone.

However, Su has found her university studies have played a significant role in her therapy.

“My artwork really helps with my PTSD as I can express myself and my feelings and focus on something other than my own mind,” she said.

“Art has enabled me to talk to people about my PTSD and mental health in general. I think the more we can talk about these issues, the more it will encourage other sufferers to open up about their problems, and the less stigma will be attached to it.

“I have found both the teaching staff and support technicians a tremendous support here at Sunderland. They are very understanding and encouraging.”

Su is now studying a Visual Practise MA and plans to continue her studies at the University with a PhD.

A Proud Moment

Simon and Su’s artwork has been personally chosen by the University of Sunderland’s Vice Chancellor, Sir David Bell, to go on display for the next two years in the University’s Edinburgh Building, City Campus.

It’s part of the University’s curated artwork exhibition – Sunderland Selects – which aims to give its budding artists the opportunity to have their work seen by fellow students as well as staff and university visitors.

Simon’s photograph – ‘Wear Bronze’ – captures his time spent walking along the cliff-tops on the Sunderland coast during lockdown. Su’s piece – ‘Out of Darkness’ – features dresses coated in concrete, representing a moment frozen in time before finally being able to move forward in life.

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Creative Industries at the University of Sunderland, Professor Arabella Plouviez, said: “The artworks created by both Simon and Su appear quite different from each other, however, they both share a similar personal journey to manage and come through and manage their experience of trauma.

“Not only have they both used their art practice to support their own well-being, but they have also, in quite different ways, enabled us, as viewers, get a window into some of that experience.

“Looking at these impressive works, gives you a sense of the immense bravery that these students have shown in bringing their own experiences into the public space.”

Sir David said: “Simon and Su demonstrate that you are never too old to succeed at university as they have been exceptionally talented mature students.

“They have also shown that art is a powerful way of dealing with mental trauma and, in their case, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I commend them for the honesty of their work and their willingness to speak so openly about what it represents.”

The University of Sunderland is backing MadeAtUni: Creative Sparks, a national campaign to showcase the creative talent produced by UK universities and encourage the Government to promote and support the importance of creativity and creative courses.

The University is proud to support the Armed Forces Community. Read more here.