Mental illness has long been a taboo subject. It has been vilified and even glamorized over the years; yet, it has remained shrouded in mystery. Perhaps one of the reasons why, is our fear of the unknown, which consequently impedes our ability to understand the subject better. It is unsurprising, then, that so little is understood not only about serious mental illnesses, but also about mental well-being in general, including positive psychology. With limited awareness, it becomes difficult to recognize signs and symptoms of psychological dysfunction in ourselves or others, and even harder to seek help. Mitigation of stigma is crucial to the prevention and management of mental health challenges.
When the pandemic took its toll in 2020, it created another dent in the dilapidated framework of global mental health. As children, adolescents and adults, collectively struggled to cope with the “new normal”, the cracks in our healthcare system became increasingly apparent. Where the pandemic resulted in insurmountable personal and financial losses, it also increased the risk of intimate partner violence and child abuse. The recent surge in racial violence and climate crises, further aggravated one’s sense of physical and financial safety. Working remotely from home, where convenient, safe and even effective on many levels, did little to ease the uncertainty. For many, it spurred a pandemic of loneliness. According to a World Health Organization study, the pandemic triggered a 25 per cent increase in general anxiety and depression worldwide.1 Tragedies have a way of re-imagining priorities, and the pandemic has done similarly in magnifying our focus on mental health. Where our stories and losses may be different, if we look closely enough, we may discover a common thread.
Is it possible, then, to weave our quilts together?
A growing body of research has highlighted art’s unique ability in uniting people.2 Artistic media include movies and plays, music, creative writing, dance and visual art, amongst others. These media, by virtue of storytelling, can help cultivate empathy and consequently weaken the stigma in mental health. They command space and attention in a way few other platforms can afford. Public dissemination of credible mental health education is challenging, especially for those who may not be willing to engage with the topic. The jargon used in medical literature has the potential to further alienate the general public and make it harder for scientific research to be shared effectively. Can mental health clinicians stand on the shoulders of artists, to better bridge this divide? Together, can we meet people in their homes, work and recreational spaces, so we are able to intervene early?
By creating a shared experience and a common language, artistic media can help creatively communicate mental health awareness across a variety of gender, race, culture, ethnicity and age groups. In doing so, it can allow one to describe the illness and its recovery process in a way that can be universally understood.3 For many patients, exploring and understanding their illness through artistic media provides new perspectives and ways to communicate them with others, including family, friends, colleagues and treating professionals.3 It validates, and fosters the sense that they are not alone in their struggles. Self-disclosure through stories has become another important strategy for promoting empowerment and combating stigma.4 In their study, Slattery et al. determined that sharing the positive aspects of recovery with one’s family, helped create an open dialogue for not only the challenges experienced, but also the way forward.3 Fisher’s communication narrative theory backs this up, as it underscores the ability of stories to reshape the society.5 Goldblatt’s interpretation of Dewey’s theory of art as experience, cements a similar concept. It highlights the transformative role of art in eliminating fear and prejudice and empowering youth to achieve social justice.6
Much like scientists, artists are complex problem-solvers. Spoken word poetry has been one of the newer additions to the creative arts category, with many poets stepping forward to convey intimate stories of their own psychological struggles. A celebration of shared experiences, poetry can help put words to feelings and stimulate societal change. Poet Sabrina Benaim’s “Explaining My Depression to My Mother,” for example, has garnered millions of views on Youtube. Through its outreach and impact, it has helped many young viewers understand and communicate their struggles to their parents. Many of Neil Hilborn’s slam poetry performances have had a similar impact on youth; they have helped start, and normalize, a discussion on mental illnesses and their treatment. Pixar’s Inside Out, by personifying emotions, held our attention through the magic of movies. It not only taught Joy, but several others in the audience (including myself), how Sadness could be viewed with grace and compassion. It helped normalize the otherwise unwelcome presence of sadness in our lives, and in the society at large. The “Not Alone” Google Doodle, which highlighted the power of human connection, won by popular vote this year. The doodle was perhaps the artist’s attempt at encouraging others to accept help when it was offered, and to actively seek it when it was not. Art repeatedly engages, inspires and connects, and reminds us that we are, in fact, not alone.
Is it possible, then, to weave our quilts together?
The answer is a resounding yes.
- News Release: COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide. World Health Organization. 2 March 2022. Accessed 18 January 2023 at https://www.who.int/news/item/02-03-2022-covid-19-pandemic-triggers-25-increase-in-prevalence-of-anxiety-and-depression-worldwide
- Homepage. Project UnLonely by the Foundation for Art and Healing. Accessed 18 January 2023 at https://www.artandhealing.org/
- Slattery M, Attard H, Stewart V, Roennfeldt H, Wheeler AJ. Participation in creative workshops supports mental health consumers to share their stories of recovery: A one-year qualitative follow-up study. PLoS One. 2020 Dec 3;15(12):e0243284. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0243284. PMID: 33270738; PMCID: PMC7714126
- Marino C, Child B, Campbell Krasinski V. Sharing experience learned firsthand (SELF). Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal. 2016; 39: 154–160. 10.1037/prj0000171
- Fisher WR. Narration as a human communication paradigm: The case of public moral argument. Commun Monogr. 1984;51(1)
- Goldblatt PF. Educ Cult. 2006;22(1):17.-34
About the Author
Huma Baqir is a fourth-year child and adolescent psychiatry resident at University at Buffalo. She is also an APA/APAF Diversity Leadership Fellow, currently working as part of the Workplace Mental Health committee. She is strongly interested in using art to advocate for mental health awareness for children, adolescents and adults alike.