Having heard voices in her mind since childhood, Katy Matilda Neo turned to art to express her emotions. Then the BBC asked her to create paintings in virtual reality. Nick Duerden steps into her world
Katy Matilda Neo has heard voices in her head for most of her life. She suffers from a condition called Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), but long believed the voices were real because, well, why wouldn’t she? It was all she knew. Now 31, and a former researcher at the UCL, Katy chose to deal with her particular mental health issue the way many people in her situation do: by cloaking it in secrecy, and feeling embarrassed about it. “I felt it was all my own fault,” she says, “proof that I simply couldn’t cope.”
‘I never really understood that I was hearing voices’
BPD has coloured every area of her life – she isn’t working right now because she is in full-time therapy – and it affects the way in which she relates to, and interacts with, the world around her. Stress compounds the problem. She has just moved house and so, consequently, “it’s been a difficult few weeks.” At its worst, BPD renders her incapable of feeding or looking after herself properly and she is forced to be dependent upon those around her to keep her safe.
For several years now, Katy has had therapy for her condition, but therapy in such cases can be problematic for the simple reason that not everyone finds it easy to put their raging thoughts and spiralling emotions into cogent words. At first, Katy didn’t, and so she started to articulate herself through art – feeling far more comfortable painting her symptoms than expounding upon them verbally. As it began to aid her recovery, she shared her efforts on Facebook privately, and then, later, turned it public. The page got quite a reception. It was then that the BBC approached, asking if she’d like to try expressing herself through virtual reality, and to be filmed while doing so. Cautious but intrigued, she said yes. “And it was amazing,” she says. The results form part of a series of short BBC Three documentaries, Step Inside My Head, that feature Katy alongside two other young people, one with anorexia, the other with psychotic depression. Each strap a virtual reality headset over their eyes, each are given a pair of tilt brushes, and are then encouraged to paint. What unfolds on their strictly metaphorical canvases makes for particularly vivid viewing.
An insight into mental illness
Because she so often feels like she is invisible, living inside of a large bubble, Katy draws a bubble, then steps into it, and fills it with multicoloured mist. Paranoia is another feature of her condition, and so next she draws a series of staring eyeballs, the kind of thing you imagine Stephen King might dream of at night. She draws a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t quite fit together, and a thousand tiny stars dotted above her head, each representative of a different fizzing thought, each a competing voice. For the three minutes of the film’s duration, she looks close to being in her element, and what she produces is a new kind of art: frenzied and fervent, vibrant with colour, though anything but impressionistic, for this is what it’s like living inside Katy’s head. “I was quite nervous beforehand,” the film’s producer, Ian Ravenscroft, says, “because it’s quite a tricky kind of subject, but Katy had so much fun on the day that she didn’t want to stop. She could have stayed there all day long, drawing. It was fantastic to watch.” The documentary’s aim, Ian Ravenscroft says, is to show how VR can be put to use in such cases. “It’s showing how virtual reality can help people from different perspectives, and also help put people in other people’s shoes.”
Hopes for the new treatment
Art therapy has long been a useful expressive tool for those with mental health issues, so it was almost inevitable that virtual reality would assert itself here too, if only because we live in a world in which we are repeatedly told that VR is poised to change so much of how we live. That hasn’t quite happened yet, and so, with the exception of avid gamers wanting to shoot up baddies in a more three-dimensional environment, VR remains mostly on our periphery, a tantalising glimpse of an even more technologically-reliant future. But according to Daniel Freeman, a Professor of Clinical Psychology, VR has “extraordinary potential” to help people overcome an increasingly wide variety of mental health problems. It is already being used as an effective component in the treatment of phobias and anxieties, enabling patients to face the very situations they most fear but within the safety of a controlled digital environment. “Take the fear of heights, for instance,” Daniel Freeman says. “The individual spends time in front of higher and higher virtual drops. They discover that nothing terrible happens, and their anxiety duly subsides. The fact that the person knows the scenario is artificial makes no difference. The mind and body respond as if it were real.”