Exploring Mental Health Creatively
Roughly 44 million Americans suffer from some type of mental illness. Worldwide, that number is closer to 450 million. Despite these monumental figures, conversations around mental health continue to be diluted by misinformation, stereotyping, and stigma.
Happily, the art world has become something of a safe haven for those affected by mental illnesses, offering a space for reflection, catharsis, and community. We spoke to three artists who are using creative outlets to cope with their struggles—and who hope to dispel some misunderstandings about mental health along the way.
“I’ve always known that art was the ultimate outlet for self-discovery,” says photographer Tsoku Maela.
Maela, who was born and raised in Lebowakgomo (a small town in the Limpopo province of South Africa), recalls the concept of “mental health” in his community being almost nonexistent. When he was diagnosed with depression during college, he became emotionally distant and lost interest in his studies. He was prescribed Prozac but, after two years, decided it wasn’t for him. During a weeklong hospital visit for chest pain in 2014, a surprising encounter with an Eastern European expat shifted his perspective.
“He told me that he had found his purpose when he was enlisted to fight in the war in his country—Yugoslavia or Russia, [I] can’t recall—and he decided that he wanted to use his hands to build and not destroy,” Maela says. “[That’s] the reason he became a refugee in South Africa, where he would follow his dream of architecture.”
The conversation made a huge impression on Maela.
“‘I remember thinking, ‘That is the most profound s*** I’ve ever heard.’”
After that, Maela went home and took his first of many, many self-portraits. Healing followed.
“The day I started to follow the rabbit down [this] hole was the last day I’d ever felt misery or sorrow in my life.”
Maela’s 2016 photography series, Abstract Peaces, chronicles his experiences with anxiety and depression. The dark, surreal self-portraits depict the isolating, silent effects of his mental illnesses. Starting with a regular picture taken in or around his home, Tsoku uses Photoshop to add unnatural elements that reflect his emotional state.
Diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder as an 8-year-old, sculptor Madeline Walker spent her childhood attempting to navigate her intrusive thoughts and behaviors, spending time in therapy and adjusting to medication. Early on, Walker recalls exhibiting some of the hallmark OCD symptoms: frequently opening and closing doors, flicking light switches on and off, and counting everything in groups of four. Now, at age 26, her symptoms have evolved and can sometimes manifest in more complicated forms of anxious second-guessing or debilitating attention to detail.
“Intrusive OCD thoughts are like the worst form of tunnel vision you could ever ask for,” she says.
While completing her undergraduate degree, Walker began using art to document her struggles. Her recent ongoing exhibition, Bloom, examines growth patterns of harmful algae, which serve as a metaphor for the relentless, recurring nature of OCD. Each installation, consisting of pastel-colored sculptures arranged in meticulous patterns, is the result of a methodical process that involves molding and plaster techniques as well as engineering software. For Walker, all this effort is well worth it.
“That repetitive process [is] a form of meditation, or replacement behavior even, as opposed to less healthy compulsions like counting tiles in the bathroom,” she says.
David Feingold, who holds a Doctorate in Disability Studies, wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar disorder until the age of 49—decades after being the victim of a nearly fatal hit-and-run that caused a traumatic brain injury. A 2014 study found that those with traumatic brain injuries were more likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder which is characterized by alternating periods of depression and mania (feelings of euphoria, over-activity, and excitement).
“Before having this illness, you could anticipate what life might be like in the next few hours, days, and even weeks,” Feingold says. “With bipolar disorder, that type of thinking is presumptuous and unrealistic.”
During periods of mania, Feingold says he can get incredibly impulsive. On one occasion, he lashed out at a street musician, and another time, he purchased a motorcycle on a whim. But it’s sometimes difficult for Feingold to tell whether he’s entering a manic or depressive bout. “It's like Russian Roulette,” he says. “You never know which symptom is in the next chamber of the barrel.”
Feingold began experimenting with digital photo editing during graduate school after accidentally revealing his disorder to his classmates. (During a somewhat heated debate, he recalls becoming so fed up that he stood, shouted a profanity, and stormed out of the classroom.) It was only the next morning that he realized what had happened and started to panic.
“I was drawn to make art about the event,” Feingold says. “It needed to be processed, understood, and accepted.”
Since then, Feingold has continued to make images that reflect his often-complicated inner world. But he’s also trying to make a difference in other people’s lives.
Debunking the Myths
While Maela, Walker, and Feingold differ in diagnosis, personal background, and medium of choice, they share the same desire to end the stigma and combat ignorance around mental illness.
David Feingold is especially concerned about terms that are tossed around carelessly.
“Pejorative use of words that represent mental illnesses lessen their validity and seriousness,” he says. “We wouldn’t describe a situation as ‘diabetic’ or ‘paraplegic’ so why do we do it with ‘being crazy,’ ‘sounding manic,’ or ‘acting schizo’?”
For Madeline Walker, destabilizing the perceived connection between mental illness and criminal or deviant behavior is crucial.
“It’s incredibly sad to me that we have placed entire groups of people into categories like this,” says Walker. “Oftentimes, people living with a mental illness are so critical of themselves that the last thing they would ever even consider is harming another person.”
This line of thinking can contribute to the feelings of fear, shame, and guilt that people with mental illnesses are already struggling with.
“The first thing people want to know about a killer in the news is, ‘Was there a psychiatric diagnosis involved?’” says Feingold. “But you can be a murderer and just be a rotten person!”
Even in the face of widespread ignorance, Tsoku Maela believes that there is plenty of hope in the younger generations.
“What really moves me are the youth that are speaking about [mental illness] in school, in their essays, in speeches,” he says. “If we can make talking about your visceral condition in response to your tangible, exterior world ‘cool,’ then we are looking at a generation that will bring an end to the stigmas.”
And, if they’re able to make art that improves their own lives, so much the better. For the artists we spoke to, it’s clear that creative expression has made a world of difference—helping them to feel more empowered, confident, and better able to cope.
“It was a profound realization that I could use my art as a way to deal effectively with my bipolar diagnosis,” recalls David Feingold. “It changed my status from an impotent sufferer of daily challenges and tribulations that ebbed and flowed in my life as a bipolar ‘victim’ to a more self-assured, confident ‘survivor.’”
“Art has that sort of power,” says Maela. “If it’s real and genuine, it will speak for itself through anyone who encounters it.”