Our local hero – Liz Atkin

Internationally acclaimed artist Liz Atkin, from the nearby Havelock Walk dropped into The Signal to talk to us about how she has used art as a tool for recovery.
Have you ever heard of Dermatillomania? No? Neither had we…until we spotted Liz’s #compulsivecharcoal sketches across social media. Art has always been a hobby to Liz but now it is so much more. Liz has used art as a tool for recovery, she confront her condition through art and it’s getting better.
Liz sketches away on a past issue of the Hippo Times as she describes the difficulty of keeping her hands and mind busy on the long commutes to and from her job in North London.   ‘Picking at your skin is very common, but when it’s beyond your control and starts causing physical damage it becomes a problem.
You may be surprised to discover that 1 in 25 people suffer from Dermatillomania, otherwise known as compulsive skin picking. It is a complex mental illness.  CSP is still a relatively unknown condition, but recent studies have revealed it can develop at any age. It can be triggered by many factors including stress and becomes a way of dealing with emotions. More recent studies have also found that CSP may have underlying genetic or hereditary links.
Liz suffered for years until one pivotal day a friend gave her a set of charcoal and a small sketchbook. One fidgety tube journey, Liz took out the charcoal and started sketching. Liz found that by keeping her hands busy she was less drawn to picking.  During one journey Liz ran out of pages in her notebook and picked up a scrap newspaper and started sketching onto images.  Liz shared a picture on her social media and left the sketch on the tube. Later she was suddenly inundated with likes and questions about where she had found the newspaper sketches.
Now, Liz creates up to 60 sketches a day and has given away 15,000 drawings since she started her #compulsivecharcoal.  Liz soon noticed the curiosity of her fellow commuters and took the opportunity to engage with people. Liz hands out her sketches along with a postcard explaining the purpose of #compulsivecharcoal.  “Only this morning I noticed a guy watching me sketch so I handed him a postcard, he then went on to tell me that his girlfriend also suffers from CSP, it got pretty emotional”. It’s amazing how a small act of kindness can open up the discussion on mental health. Liz’s creations have had a huge impact raising awareness for the condition. Liz has used art to harness her condition and to raise advocacy for CSP and mental health more widely. The happy accident of running out of sketch paper has led to a campaign which has made huge leaps in de-stigmatizing CSP. Liz is now a key advocate and has been profiled by BBC Breakfast, BBC Radio 4 and VICE magazine among many others. In 2017 Liz even took part in the Singapore Fringe Festival delivering a series of lectures and art workshops and creating more than 400 #CompulsiveCharcoal drawings on public transport.
Liz’s 1 minute compulsive charcoal drawings, though a simple gesture, have started a conversation on mental health and CSP which didn’t exist before. Any encounter whether on the tube or over social media can have a powerful ripple effect and open vital conversations on mental health. If you’re ever lucky enough to spot Liz on a tube journey around London make sure you join in and share the #compulsivecharcoal hashtag. Let’s keep the mental health conversation going!
T: @LizAtkin