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Seaneen Meets... Kath Lovell

by Seaneen Molloy

29th April 2010

Award winning mental health blogger Seaneen Molloy sets out on a quest to meet people who have a different take on working with emotional distress.

In the first of the series, Seaneen meets Kath Lovell, National Project Development Officer for Emergence - an organisation that works to improve the understanding and treatment of personality disorders. She has personal experience of being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD).

When Emergence presented its first user-led exhibition in trendy east London, Seaneen swung by for a chat...
Seaneen Molloy with Kath Lovell
As I arrive at the Together Gallery in Old Street, the light bulbs are still burning which is a rare occurrence at 7pm when this part of the city is usually abandoned. It's the final evening of 'Discovering the Creative Self', an exhibition by artists living with personality disorders.

As I enter the gallery, I'm confronted by three strikingly agonised portraits (the work of Jill Illiffe) and I find myself both absorbed and repulsed by their naked vulnerability. In stark contrast, Lillian Kwok's enchanting music box invites you to play in a tone which is both childlike and innocent. As the tune 'My Way' tinkles out, I can't help but raise a smile.

Heather Beveridge's, 'Pick 'N' Tick' machine spits out a diagnosis when fed a pound coin. Lucky recipients can then have their mugshot taken, holding their new personality labels such as borderline, avoidant and narcissistic. I scrabbled around for a quid but alas, my poverty foiled me again!
Artist Heather Beveridge
Artist Heather Beveridge presents her work     &nbsp
Also on show is the artwork of Kath Lovell, whom, since 2007, has been the project development manager for Borderline UK (now Emergence) – an organisation which supports and empowers those living with borderline personality disorder.

She says: "I believe creativity is a vital aspect in the journey of recovery. It can help people who have traditionally used quite destructive coping mechanisms to deal with intense feelings and channel them in a more positive way."
Kath herself was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in 2002 following a suicide attempt. She had suffered years of emotional turmoil resulting from early traumatic experiences. She went from self-harming at the age of seven to overdosing by age eight. A driving force behind Emergence, and the exhibition, Kath's in high demand tonight.

The gallery is so bustling that we retreat to the corridor to chat. She croaks an apology for her sore throat, before getting down to business.
Seaneen Molloy interviews Kath Lovell
Kath shares her views on recovery with Seaneen     &nbsp
Kath passionately believes that the arts have a role in fighting the stigma associated with personality disorders. From my own experience, people with personality disorders are seen as somehow less deserving of respect and compassion than people with 'real' mental illnesses.

Kath agrees, "Many in health care still subscribe to the notion that personality disorders (PDs) are untreatable and people with them are attention seekers, manipulative and ‘difficult’. They can be seen as people who aren’t capable of much and indeed the opposite is true. Instilling the belief that there is talent and opportunity can do much to help individuals and others realise that they are worth something."
Seaneen considers diagnoses of personality disorders
Seaneen considers diagnoses of personality disorders
generated by Heather Beveridge's machine     &nbsp
And this is a valuable observation, as I think the stigma surrounding personality disorders can extend to those diagnosed with them. There is shame and anger when one is told that their very personality, the fabric of who they are, is "disordered". It can feel as though one is to blame for one's own distress.

I've recently had my diagnosis of bipolar disorder questioned, with my doctor suggesting I may have a personality disorder. My first reaction was one of horror. I thought that there must be something 'wrong' with me in a way I never thought with bipolar. Getting this diagnosis can feel profoundly isolating, as though the medical profession has thrown its hands up to say "I give up on you".

Yet personality disorders are common. Many people on psychiatric inpatient wards will be diagnosed with one. There are a few specialist centres that treat personality disorders, so therapeutic options will vary depending on where you live. But, Kath says:

"There's not a specific type of therapy that works for everybody, and different people will respond to different things."
I wonder if this activism can actually bring about real change. How can the message that someone with a personality disorder can recover, and be constructive and creative, be heard when the majority of the psychiatric profession think otherwise?

Kath smiles, "I'd like to see service users treated more humanely, with compassion and empathy. There is more to a person with a personality disorder than challenging behaviours." She favours the approach taken in a recent Department of Health report which states that specialist mental health care services should be made available to people with PDs.
Seaneen examines Lilian Kwok's work
Seaneen examines Lilian Kwok's piece, Music Box     &nbsp
With that, she returns to the gallery, where things are winding down. Artists are packing up their creations. Outside, I bump into Heather Beveridge (of the diagnosis generator), who tells me she's recently been offered an Artists' Residency in County Kerry (Ireland). She's going places, and judging by the evening, she's not the only one who will be.

Do you like Kath's ideas on creativity and recovery? Add your comment below.


    • 1. At 11:00pm on 04 May 2010, Pandora wrote:

      My primary diagnosis is borderline personality disorder with psychotic features (plus complex PTSD, major depression and social anxiety), and whilst I believe the diagnosis is fair, there is as you can rightly point out a severe deficit of services for this type of mental illness. Fortunately, in Britain there are developing initiatives such as NICE's "No Longer a Diagnosis of Exclusion" - but here in Northern Ireland, well, they seem to conveniently forgot or not be bound by NHS policy over there.

      As it happens, given that I am about to have my psychotherapy cut short during a very crucial stage of same, I am embroiled in something of a bitter row with my local Trust about their failure to offer any meaningful provision for PDs. Of course, they take months to respond to my correspondences and offer little more than platitudes when they do, but I'm quite determined to continue on my quest to receive adequate treatment nevertheless. Problem is, they'll probably just say, "oh, that's just typical borderline behaviour, don't listen to her." PDs (especially, I am told, BPD) really *are* the only group of psychiatric conditions that even the psychiatric establishment stigmatise.

      Anyway...have you heard of Kayla Kavanagh? She's a Belfast-born singer-songwriter based now in Yorkshire, also with BPD. She's just started working with Emergence too: she's involved with Train the Trainer workshops in educating those running courses on managing individuals with PDs. It's great to see people like Kayla and Kath who have the disorder doing something positive about it. I only wish I could do so, but sadly it's not happening any time soon.

      All the best

      Pan (from

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