RECENTLY, I was speaking with a Japanese artist who specialises in kintsugi – “the art of precious scars”.
Kintsugi artists restore broken pottery. The philosophy is to treat breakage and repair as part of the history of the piece rather than disguise it. The repairs are illuminated by the nature of the repair, which are often done in gold. She showed me photos of her exhibitions and the art was indeed beautiful. Its true meaning was a little lost to me at the time, but was greatly reinforced when I read a book by Tomas Navarro about kintsugi’s potential connection to mental health.
The craft takes many years to master, and indeed each piece takes many hours to complete. It is both a work of art and love, with each piece beautifully restored.
The repaired pottery of kintsugi is not viewed as defective because it is damaged and has been repaired. It is proudly displayed, not hidden away.
Recovery from a mental health condition requires expert medical artistry from the counsellors and can indeed take a long time. The repair may also leave scars, often invisible, but as with the pottery, the repaired person can still function. Indeed, just as the repaired pottery is viewed as a thing of beauty, so we should view those that bear the scars of mental illness. They are testament to their own resilience and strength. We should exhibit them in the same way.
It is not clear that we do that in the medical profession.
I have many scars. Most are invisible, but it is who I am, and it is my history. I can function equally well now in my job and in my everyday life. Like all who have been through mental health struggles and recovery, it’s our vulnerabilities and our responses to them that should be embraced. We should feel able to proudly display them.
Far too often we who have had mental health issues have been viewed as not being made in the correct way – not blasted in the furnace or shaped on the pottery wheel for strength. We are seen as not resilient enough – not made of the right stuff.
Just like a pot, if we are dropped from a great height or hit in the correct spot, we will break and maybe even shatter. But don’t we have the right to repair? Shouldn’t our recovery be valued?
We have gained awareness – pots break, and so do humans. We know this now, but it’s in the normalisation and respecting of the repair that we are still lacking.
In kintsugi, often the pottery is shattered and requires complex repair, which can take time and money. Just as this ancient art requires the skill of the artist, the time and space in which to weave the magic and the appropriate tools and support, mental health recovery requires time, money, personnel and respect for the “repaired pot”.
We have become very aware of the shattered people much like the shattered pots. But a repaired pot is just lying idle, waiting, not performing its role, until someone has faith that it can do its job, just as before. We need to urgently provide the resources and skills to repair our “broken” colleagues. Give them the time to recover or get support. And then we must allow them to display their scars and perform their roles. Otherwise, unlike the repaired pots, they will remain shattered.
Dr Geoffrey Toogood is a cardiologist and a long-time advocate for mental health. He has swum the English Channel. He came up with the idea of crazysocks4docs day.
If this article has raised issues for you, help is available at:
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Medical Benevolent Society (https://www.mbansw.org.au/)
AMA lists of GPs willing to see junior doctors (https://www.doctorportal.com.au/doctorshealth/)
Lifeline on 13 11 14
beyondblue on 1300 224 636
beyondblue Doctors’ health website: https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/our-work-in-improving-workplace-mental-health/health-services-program
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