Art Therapy vs. Art Practice: navigating mental illness as a theme in arts education

It’s final project proposal time. Students sign up for individual meetings. They write up their statements and storyboard their series. You meet together in a classroom or office. “What are you thinking about for you project?” you ask. “I’d like to do something about anxiety and depression” the student says. “I’d like to make a series about what it’s like to experience the disease. I’d like to raise awareness. I’d like to share my own story.”

If you are a photography educator the above conversation may be familiar. In recent years, I and many of my colleagues have observed an increase in the number of students who want to make work about or related to mental illness. For many of these students, the impulse is personal: they’re one of the estimated twenty percent of young adults who suffer from a mental illness.¹ For others, their concern grows out of empathy for their peers; they may be witness to the rise in students reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression. According to the most recent National College Health Assessment survey, nearly 60% of students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety in the past twelve months and 40% of the 42,000 respondents reported feeling so depressed it was difficult to function during that same period.² Or, they may feel called to document and respond to an issue that appears to be ballooning around them. According to the most recent Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors survey, seventy percent of directors observed an increase in the number of students with severe psychological problems on their campus in the past year.³

So, as educators, how do we help students wishing to respond to mental health issues? If you are like me, you may feel torn between a desire to support students in their work and a deep discomfort about how — or if — to engage with the subject at all. As a photography educator I am committed to helping my students learn how to use visual images to explore a topic that they care about. I want them to feel enabled to use their photography to connect with their audiences in a meaningful way. And for many students mental illness is a subject that motivates them to engage with photography in just such a way. Moreover, I do not want to tell my students what they can and cannot explore through their work. Naturally, I do not support work about topics that are offensive, obscene, or inappropriate, but mental health issues do not fall into these categories. Yet, my first job as an educator of any kind is to ensure a safe learning environment — for both the students and also for myself. I’m not a mental health professional, and mentoring student projects about personal experiences with a disease may put me — as a critique leader — in an uncomfortable or even dangerous situation; unintentionally, I or another student could say something aimed at improving a series that is hurtful or even harmful to the student.

Ultimately, educators need to find ways to both support students wishing to raise awareness about a timely and sensitive issue and ensure that this work does not negatively impact a learning environment. A few strategies have helped me to mentor projects on sensitive topics; they have aided me in maintaining important boundaries and enabled me to support student work about psychiatric disorders. Though not applicable for all situations, learning environments or all educators, I hope that these ideas and examples may be useful for other undergraduate photography teachers.

My first step has been to acknowledge to the student the limitations of the learning environment. In past semesters I have had students ask to make documentary work about their PTSD, anxiety, and depression. In each one of these situations I explained that I could not mentor a project about a students’ personal experience with these issues because I was not trained to do so in a safe manner, and projects about a personal trauma are not a good fit for a critique space. Photography classes are not art therapy sessions. With rare exception, photography educators are not trained mental health professionals and are not qualified to safely guide a student through an exploration of their mental illness. Further, as classroom leaders I believe that we need to ensure a safe learning environment for all students. When one student presents work about their personal struggles, other students may worry that in critiquing the work, their comments could be viewed as questioning the validity of their peer’s experience. Also, in light of a peer’s work about personal trauma, another student may feel that their work is trivial or insignificant in comparison. We can — and should — support students who wish to explore sensitive topics such as personal health issues through their own photographic practice, but we can posit to them that the work may not be a good fit for class.

© Kiley Smith, Breathing Control, 2015, 21.5” x 31.5, archival inkjet print.

Second: I have encouraged students to make their work about the issue itself. In past semesters I had two students who made effective and engaging projects about mental illness without relying on a first person narrative that helped me and their peers learn about mental disorders. The first student explored anxiety and the different ways individuals experience the often debilitating symptoms of the disease. Writing about her series “Latex and Sandpaper,” Kiley Smith observed: “Mental Illness runs in my family, but it was always something we had a hard time talking to each other about. Therefore, we all had a skewed understanding of what mental illness was. For me, there was no way to explain perfectly what anxiety was or how it felt. I asked myself, “How could I explain anxiety without words?” This is what ending up driving my project.”

© Kiley Smith, Distressed, 2016, 21” x 31.5, archival inkjet print.

She began by creating a short survey for fellow anxiety sufferers that asked participants to describe their symptoms: what did their panic attacks feel like? Was there a texture they associated with their feelings of anxiety? A color? Did it affect a certain part of their body in particular? Using the responses, she created a series of sculpted forms that interpreted the participant data and asked her models to wear the pieces in her studio photographs. And, if a respondent described their anxiety as associated with a specific color, she used a gel of that color to modify her lighting. One model wore a balloon collar to mimic a tightening of the neck. Another had on an exaggerated spine to reference the piercing weight he feels in his back during an attack. Here, the project design allowed this student to share the visceral experience she and her peers have as a result of their illness in a visually engaging and informative manner.

© Kiley Smith, Burdened, 2016, 21” x 31.5, archival inkjet print.
© Kiley Smith, Locked In, 2016, 21” x 31.5, archival inkjet print.

Another student, Breanna Thompson, employed a similar tactic to communicate the experience of depression and anxiety episodes. She created a series of anaglyph images that interpreted the individual experience of different psychiatric disorders. Using familiar settings and subject matter, such as a park or academic planner, she constructed photographs that appeared differently when viewed with color-coded glasses. Without the visual aid, the viewer would first see a “normal” view of the setting or subject matter. While wearing the glasses, however, they would experience an altered view that mimicked the discord or unease felt by someone with a mental illness. In her statement, she notes that her series “allows a viewer to relate to an individual with a mental disorder” while acknowledging that “mental disorders are subject to individual cognitive and perceptual differences, and no two individuals experience a disorder the same way. Similarly, no two viewers will have the same perceptual experience when viewing these images.” Through her project design and use of technique Thompson was able to explore an important fact about mental illness: things that may be easy or that appear insignificant to one person, may not for those who suffer from depression and anxiety.

© Breanna Thompson, Untitled, from the series “Mental Disorders through Anaglyph Imagery,” 2016, 20”x30”, archival inkjet print.
© Breanna Thompson, Untitled, from the series “Mental Disorders through Anaglyph Imagery,” 2016, 20”x30”, archival inkjet print.
© Breanna Thompson, Untitled, from the series “Mental Disorders through Anaglyph Imagery,” 2016, 20”x30”, archival inkjet print.

Together, both projects show how photography students can explore the experience of living with a mental illness in an informative manner. In both instances the students created series that first engaged their viewers visually through their use of color and form before introducing sensitive content. Further, in doing so, they avoided alienating viewers who would — knowing that the work is about a sensitive subject — would avoid engaging with the work altogether.

A third strategy that I have used for working with students who wish to make work about mental illness is to explore ways to represent qualitative content in a quantitative manner. This method can be useful for students who wish to talk about mental illness through documentary images but may be producing either unclear or overly sensitive photographs. For example, in a previous semester I worked with a who student wished to explore depression and anxiety among her peer group by interviewing peers and documenting the conversations. The first set of images showed students in conversation at a coffee shop, hands holding coffee cups, fidgeting gestures, etc. To be understood as a documentation of a lengthy conversation the photographs required an explanation from the student. But, in critique the class learned that while the conversations with peers began indoors, they eventually — due to stress felt by the participant over talking about their illness in a public place — moved outside and continued over a long walk. The student kept a log about how long and far she walked with her peers, which, for her, corresponded to the depth of the conversation about their mental illness. The class decided that this qualitative information was important for a presentation of her series and suggested that this student pair the portraits or documentary photographs from the conversation with an image of the route taken during the interview. This way, the student could represent the depth of the issue in a way that — though still reliant on a caption or other series text — would not be misinterpreted or be unclear to the viewer.

Mental illness and a rise in diagnoses among American undergraduate students is an issue of great concern for teachers in any discipline. As photography teachers we can and should encourage students who want to use their experience to make engaging work about a timely issue. By acknowledging our limitations and those of the college classroom, by helping students direct their passion about this issue into an effective communication strategy, we can do our part to help bring needed attention to this issue without sacrificing a safe and productive learning environment for all students.


  1. “Mental Health By the Numbers | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental ….” https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers. Accessed 1 Feb. 2018.
  2. “Survey Data — American College Health Association.” https://www.acha.org/ACHA/Resources/Survey_Data/ACHA/Resources/Survey_Data.aspx. Accessed 1 Feb. 2018.
  3. “The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors.” https://taucccd.memberclicks.net/assets/documents/aucccd%202016%20monograph%20-%20public.pdf. Accessed 1 Feb. 2018.

Meghan Kirkwood is an Assistant Professor at North Dakota State University where she teaches Photography and Foundations Design. She earned a B.F.A. from Rhode Island School of Design, an M.F.A. from Tulane University, and PhD in African Art from the University of Florida. Kirkwood’s photography has been exhibited throughout the U.S., Europe, Mexico, and South Africa.


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