“Art and the Mind” offers little about art, questionable information on the mind

I was expecting claims that creative brilliance are directly related to mental illness—a myth often used to excuse bad, abusive behavior. While there was little of that, thankfully, what was there wasn’t any better.

Aaminah Shakur


The UICA gallery space with Rick Beerhorst’s work was the setting for a panel discussion on “the impacts of creative expression on the brain.” Photo courtesy UICA, Kendall College of Art and Design.

The Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA) hosted a panel talk Thursday night that was marketed as a discussion of “the impacts of creative expression on the brain.” Artist Rick Beerhorst promoted it with a Facebook post that read in part “Why do so many people who work in creative fields also have some type of significant mental illness? Is there some kind of overlap between creativity and mental illness?… join us as we explore this curious and often misunderstood phenomena.” As an artist and writer who also lives with bipolar disorder and complex post traumatic stress, I was intrigued but worried about the direction the talk seemed likely to go.

Rick Beerhorst, whose work is currently on exhibit at UICA as one of two artists included in this year’s “Coming Home” exhibition, shared the event with the above comments and questions.

The layers of “awkward” in the event were many. From the conflation of addiction with mental illness (I live with both — although they are frequently co-occurring, they are not the same thing) to one of the panelists claiming that as a doctor she “doesn’t see color” and never treated patients different on that basis, the conversation centered on “the mind” part of the title primarily and still got more wrong than it got right.

I was expecting a discussion full of claims that artistic genius and creative brilliance are directly related to mental illness. There is a certain type of artist that trades on this myth as a means both of self-aggrandizing and excusing bad, often abusive, behavior. While there was little of that, thankfully, what was there wasn’t better.

It is disturbing how in such a diverse city there would ever be a panel of three white speakers. The moderator—who despite not having any stated expertise in the topic participated more than he moderated — was the only person of color in the discussion. Two of the three panelists have creative backgrounds, only one has a mental illness, and since addiction was thrown into the mix it’s worth noting that none of them personally identified as addicts. Their expertise in the topic at hand is questionable. Their views on the topic should have been vetted better to understand the value versus potential damage of their contributions.

Ivan Jenson is a former visual artist turned poet and novelist who lives with mental illness. According to his website, he was an artistic child prodigy from a family of artists and has always been successful as an artist and writer. His latest novel includes a racist slur against the Rroma people in its title, which let me know early on his contributions were not going to be sensitive. He monopolized the conversation, irreverently answering questions that require more nuance, jumped in on areas where his expertise was least relevant, and left little room for the women to fully contribute.

Nessa McCasey is a poetry therapist who provides coaching to help people tap into their own creativity. She began her career as a technical writer and is also a poet. Throughout most of the conversation she seemed timid and uncomfortable, but her contributions were some of the most interesting insights of the entire evening. Speaking with humility, she said her clients do the actual work of therapy through their writing and in the process they validate their classmates’ experiences.

One of the most beautiful things she shared was how her work and research of poetry throughout history has shown her that “the human experience transcends time,” as poetry has been used to consider the same concerns over the centuries. Near the end of the evening she suggested that we should try seeing things from a perspective of our collective strengths. We should ask “what if” in positive ways — what would the world look like if we took care of each other, if we solved the critical struggles in our communities?

Sandy Dettmann was a pediatric emergency physician for decades before profound chronic illnesses threw her life into chaos. Misusing claims of mental illness and substance abuse rather than acknowledging the debilitating effects of her actual physical illnesses, her husband divorced her. Dettmann ended up homeless and struggling with the stigma of illnesses she didn’t even actually have. When she was able to recover from the chronic illness and get her life back on track, she committed to working in the field of addiction to reduce stigma and provide medical treatment. While she is a wonderful advocate for people struggling with the disease of addiction, there is an underlying paternalism towards her patients and some denial of the complexities of systemic disparities.

One of the issues, raised by moderator Marcel Price, was the idea of “overmedication.” Price had prepared for the talk by doing some research, he said.

“People of color (POC) who seek help are 50% more likely to be overmedicated,” he stated. The three panelists unanimously appeared somewhat surprised by this statistic before rushing forth to defend its truth. This was an example of how talks like this can spread irresponsible and harmful misinformation, however, and why both moderator and panelists should be better vetted regarding the quality and scope of their expertise as well as their personal views on the topic being discussed.

I was happy he had prepared to address racial disparities and the needs of POC in the conversation, but his statistic was poorly presented. When opening with statistics, it is important to offer the source of the information as well as the context. Again, this is also where the distinction between mental illness and addiction matters. Are the overmedicated 50% those who have sought help for mental illness? For other neurodivergent issues such as Attention Deficit Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder? For other physical medical needs? Was that statistic based on a local study or nationwide? Was it specific to a pediatric population, prison population, or other specific group, or was it a broad-based study? Dr. Dettmann then conflated this with a claim that POC are overprescribed opiates and this is why we currently have an addiction crisis.

While there has been some evidence that children of color are more likely to be placed on medications to address “behavioral concerns,” often without appropriate testing to determine an accurate diagnosis, overall Black and Latinx people are being offered far less pain management and medical treatment for depression, anxiety, and trauma than white patients. Numerous studies have shown that racial bias impacts whether POC are believed about their stated pain, whether they are prescribed pain management for the same injuries as white patients, and whether they are treated even when reaching out for support for mental illness. Black people are not the ones dying in the current opiate crisis.

The moderator and panelists (left) and attending audience (right). Photos courtesy UICA, Kendall College of Art and Design.

There was very little in the event that truly did talk about the connection between mental illness and art. There was no advice for artists living with mental illness (or addiction, for that matter), no advice for how to channel art as a part of managing or treating mental illness, no advice about how to maintain an artistic career while managing mental illness, and not even advice for how people can support artists whose work may be impacted by their illness.

Local support for mental health services have been drastically reduced just this month by changes to Medicaid that have resulted in a $10 million budget deficit for Network 180. As discussed during the panel talk, this affects everyone in our community. The worst impact will be upon those who already have the least access to services and resources and no alternatives to get the care they need. Both Dettmann and McCasey are members of the Network 180 board. When asked by an audience member for recommendations of how the public can best advocate on this matter, they were unprepared and had no specific direction. This displayed a disturbing lack of preparation, leading me to ask why these particular panelists were chosen.

The main area where art was even discussed was a passing glance at the work of Rick Beerhorst in the galleries and a superficial response to it. No explanation was given for why the work by Beerhorst was related to the topic of the evening, leaving visitors to make up their own stories as to why the work was included in the discussion as well as event promotions.

Work by Rick Beerhorst in “Coming Home” at UICA now through January 28. Photos courtesy UICA.

A brief discussion was had concerning the importance of art and music in schools. While several studies have shown that academics are improved by participation in creative activities, one art educator in the audience said what is less appreciated is that students who struggle with academic subjects may excel in creative endeavors and should be supported in honoring their strengths.

Left unstated is the notion that perhaps our mental health crisis would be helped if we did a better job of supporting people to embrace their creative talents and not value them lower than academic achievement.

The stress of trying to live up to unrealistic expectations, and not feeling able to express ourselves fully, makes our illnesses worse and may even be the root cause of some of those illnesses.

As McCasey suggested, what if we just supported each other?

Unfortunately, the panel left a lot to be desired, a lot of questions unasked, and a lot of answers incomplete or oversimplified. While no talk can meet every possible need, and you can’t adequately discuss any issue in all of its complexities in one hour, this particular event was disappointing from start to finish. The selected guests seemed ill equipped to discuss the issue; it was somewhat unclear exactly what the issue really was; and numerous inappropriate things were said that could have been prevented.

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