How to illustrate the student mental health crisis
Here at Mosaic, art is an integral part of how we tell our stories — so we commission a diverse range of illustrators and photographers to bring our writers’ words to life. When artist Libby Scarlett read our new feature on student mental health, she decided to create the images for it in a way that took its message to heart.
“The story talks so much about listening to students,” explains Libby. “If we could have a conversation to create the artwork, I thought it would be a really nice way of bringing the recommendations of the article into being.”
Anna Lewis’s longread explores the rise of mental health problems at universities, suggesting students feel their voices are not being heard. So, thought Libby, shouldn’t the artwork come from students?
Libby planned a series of workshops and put out an open call for participants at the Manchester School of Art, where she teaches. Her idea was to create artworks not of students but in collaboration with them — by having ‘drawing conversations’.
The process began with a group discussion based on the students’ responses to the story. “Most of them talked about their own experiences a lot more openly than I thought they would,” says Libby.
She used the free-flowing conversation to develop a list of themes — such as over-working, deterioration and not belonging — that she and the students could refer to in the second set of workshops. These were one-to-one sessions in which she would discuss the ideas with each student — this time not in words, but through drawing.
“I didn’t have any version of what this was supposed to look like, so it didn’t matter if one person’s style was really different from another,” she says. Libby and each student would take turns to respond to each other’s drawings with markings of their own. Then, they would discuss what they’d created before repeating the process.
The resulting artworks have been collated by Libby to illustrate the story — with less editing than she’d expected. “I thought we’d have a mess, we’d discuss it and then we’d condense down what we’d done and maybe simplify it. That didn’t actually happen in the end.”
Libby feels the images are so credible because they’ve been made by the people the article is about. “They feel so beautiful because they’ve got so much real emotion in them.”
During the drawing conversation, students were free to choose from a range of materials and implements — including some that acted as obstacles. Libby — inspired by the challenges around mental health care that came out in the group discussion — provided canes and sticks, which the students could use to distance themselves from the canvas and make the creative process harder.
“It all felt really difficult,” she says of the students’ accounts of seeking mental health support. “As soon as they tried to get help, all these barriers were there.”
Libby was also struck by how passionately the students engaged with the issue — “they all made so much effort to be able to be part of it; it felt so important to [them]” — and believes her own outlook as a university teacher has changed as a result. In tutorials with her own students the day after the group session, Libby asked them if they were sleeping enough, and how they were finding the workload.
“It made me ask questions I’m not sure I normally do,” she says.
Author: Laura Mulvey
Editor: Rob Reddick
Art director: Charlie Hall
Artist: Libby Scarlett
With thanks to the Manchester School of Art students who participated in the illustration workshops: Jane Catterson, Amber Denneny, Hannah Goodall, Georgia Marshall Evangelou, Devon Jacques, Evie Moss, Victoria Moyosola, Darcy Owen-Towe, Millie Robson, Callum Smyth, Ciara Tee.