What Role Should Art Play In Presenting Mental Illness To The World?

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Artistic expression has obvious value for those with mental illness. But what purpose does sharing this creativity serve?

Art and mental health have a long history of association. Often, the two are even seen as dependent on one another — without misery, the ideas goes, one cannot create.

This perception, which is rooted in a dangerous romanticism, may have some basis in reality — people with bipolar disorder, for instance, have reported high levels of creativity during manic episodes. But scientists have also criticized research suggesting a direct link between mental illness and creativity, and warn against such broad-stroke conclusions.

Whatever the link, what is evident is that art is an effective outlet for individuals with mental illnesses. An extensive literature review in 2010 noted that:

“There is evidence that engagement with artistic activities, either as an observer of the creative efforts of others or as an initiator of one’s own creative efforts, can enhance one’s moods, emotions, and other psychological states as well as have a salient impact on important physiological parameters.”

A National Center for Biotechnology Information review of studies similarly revealed that art therapy resulted in a “significant reduction” in depression and anxiety, as well as a “significant reduction of symptoms” for people who’ve experienced trauma.

While I get highly irritated by the suggestion that a few minutes of mindful coloring can cure debilitating illnesses, it’s clear that creativity can indeed provide a useful channel for exploring one’s self, which can help with the management of difficult mental health.

But what about sharing this creativity?

Increasingly in recent years, there have been high-profile art exhibitions, theater productions, books, photography displays, television shows, and movies exploring mental health, often written, produced, and performed by the individual at the center of the story. Losing It, a two-woman show about mental health written and performed by comic actor Ruby Wax and musician Judith Owen, has received rave reviews in London. Stephen Fry uses poetry to help deal with his bipolar and depression. And Lena Dunham has been pretty vocal about her mental illnesses, which she’s explored on Girls and in her writing. Finding art a valuable tool for themselves, these creators have decided to share their experiences with others.

But the question is: What purpose does this serve? What is the role of art in presenting issues of mental health to the world? Is it catharsis, education, exploration, to trigger empathy, articulate the self — or none of these?

And at what point, if any, do such expressions become problematic?

As much as we believe that we are more open minded and liberal than ever before, mental illness continues to carry stigma, not helped by media portrayals in which it is readily associated with and even deemed the cause of violent crime and terrorism. It still scares us, and this is often rooted in a lack of understanding.

Art therefore offers a medium for crucial education. When Liz Atkin started handing out drawings that she had done to help deal with Compulsive Skinpicking Disorder on a London tube, she found conversations begin to emerge. She describes it as “a moment of connection, of advocacy for mental health.”

Guo Haiping, director of the Nanjing Tiancheng Outsider Art Center — an organization offering space for the mentally ill to create, exhibit, and sell their art — told Vice magazine that art helps people respect those with mental-health issues. “In the past people would help the mentally ill with a mentality of helping the vulnerable. This actually distanced them from us further,” he said. Through honest, relatable artistic expression, that bridge may be gapped.

In their work looking at the role of arts in mental health settings in Ireland, Lydia Sapouna and Elisabeth Pamer suggest that art’s transformative power comes from seeing people beyond a diagnosis and reducing stigma. For this to happen, it seems clear that the art, and the person behind it, must be taken out of the clinical setting and into the world. As they say, people “need opportunities to engage with the world outside the mental health system rather than the mental health system becoming their world.”

Lois Saperstein, who started Arts Do The Public Good, echoes this, noting that creative expressions of mental illness can “show hope, possibilities, life’s challenges, ways to cope. As an educational medium and as a way to raise dialogues, it can bring people together and create change.”

The value of all this cannot be underestimated. But at the same time, the creative expression of mental illness raises difficult questions about voyeurism, exploitation, and the limits of the artistic medium.

Everyone experiences illness and wellness differently — and while art can give expression to an individual’s reality, writer and bibliotherapist Christine Cather warns that it can be dangerous to define everyone’s experience in this way. Karen Harvey agrees, stating that “It’s impossible for one person’s presentation of their experience of mental illness to speak on behalf of others because each person is unique.”

According to Katherine Vince from Balancing Acts, a theater production exploring the experience of depression, engaging in the creation of and watching theater can result in a wide variety of outcomes and benefits — for viewer and performer. She states that “it is also important, no matter what the subject matter, that when producing a performance we provide engaging entertainment because this is what enables spectators to escape into the worlds of the show.”

‘It’s impossible for one person’s presentation of their experience of mental illness to speak on behalf of others because each person is unique.’

But this artistic goal can itself be fraught; mental illness isn’t actually funny or entertaining, and any romantic stereotype suggesting otherwise is one that needs to be banished. The girl with a mental illness is almost always depicted as skinny and beautiful, with wide eyes and tight jeans, her long hair flowing, with a quirky and beguiling personality. This is a girl who boys gaze upon longingly, pining for what has famously been described as the “manic pixie dream girl.”

Particularly common when dealing with eating disorders, this presentation can suggest that illnesses are a choice of privileged and vain individuals, and can set them up as being attractive to vulnerable young girls. “I’m so OCD” has become a synonym for liking a tidy bedroom, while bipolar disorder is often conflated with dramatic (in an interesting sense) mood swings. Rather being viewed as brain-based diseases that have severe impacts on an individual’s life, mental illnesses are often portrayed as a quirky novelty.

I wonder, too, if it’s dangerous to present the experience of living with mental illness in the form of art at all, potentially suggesting that the reality can be summarized into a few sentences or images, and that by just seeing it audiences will really understand. In this way, it parallels “poverty porn,” in that people could feel they have gained some fundamental insight into the experience of mental illness, which they then promptly forget once they return to their own comfortable existence.

Still, while these issues complicate art’s role in portraying the experience of mental illness, this doesn’t mean the medium should be outright discouraged. Rather, it’s worth exploring how artistic expression can manifest in ways both valuable and harmful.

As I’ve said previously, art offers a place to explore the reality of being a human in this world, with all its ups and downs, and being able to express that reality is a fundamental right. Art clearly has multiple roles to play in portraying mental illness, including articulation, education, and storytelling. Moreover, it provides a vehicle for expression and communication, a way to engage in the world.

As human beings, whatever our position on that hazy spectrum, this connection to the world matters.

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