Fighting the stigma surrounding mental illness can be a battle but a new studio in Portugal’s capital Lisbon is using arts and creativity to help those affected in a free and easy environment.

One in five Portuguese suffers from mental health issues, according to a report published by OECD last year, which also showed Portugal has the fifth-highest percentage of people affected by mental illnesses in the European Union.

The studio Manicomio, which in English means “mental asylum”, opened last week and is now a spot where current and former patients can create and display artwork such as paintings or sculptures, away from psychiatric hospitals.

“I was hospitalised seven times and it was too painful,” said Anabela Soares, 50, who makes sculptures to help cope with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

“People don’t know how great it is to have a space where there is freedom to create, to get rid of the ‘little monsters’ inside of us.”

The project’s mastermind is 44-year-old Sandro Resende, who has worked as an arts teacher at psychiatric hospitals in Portugal for two decades and recruited the amateur artists from Lisbon’s Psychiatric Hospital Centre.

The project is mostly funded by private companies, with support from the state tourism agency.

Ciro Oliveira, a doctor at the Psychiatric Hospital Centre, called it a “very interesting project” because it allows patients “to create artwork without the stigma associated with being closed in the hospital”.

“There is an idea that those who have a mental illnesses are lunatics and cannot lead a normal life,” said 37-year-old artist Claudia Sampaio, who has weekly appointments in the psychiatric hospital.

“This project demystifies that idea.” – Reuters