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Fighting the Stigmas of Mental Illness Through Art

Photo: Courtesy of Art With Impact

I consider myself to be one of the most fortunate humans on the planet: my career is built around my passion, which is to find ways to reduce the stigma around mental illness. It’s actually in my job description to explore ways to take away the fear, shame, isolation and lack of support that people with mental illnesses live with every day. I’m passionate about this work because a full 90 percent of deaths by suicide are related to mental illness in some way. And people aren’t getting the support they need in time: of the 20 percent of the population who currently live with a mental illness, it’s estimated that only one-third get help and even then, the average amount of time that someone waits before getting help for a mood disorder is an astonishing 10 years. Stigma is one of the reasons that people either wait too long to get help, or don’t get any help at all. So addressing this cultural shame is, ultimately, a way to save lives.

But this work is not straightforward because there’s nothing simple when it comes to mental health. Everyone is different, and is inspired in different ways. For me, personally, the most inspiring people are the ones who tell the truth. That’s what has drawn me to art since I was little. Artists are people who can’t stop themselves from telling the truth through visual representations, sound, movement and stories. The truth isn’t always uplifting but it does provide a solid foundation for exploration and evaluation.

Re-evaluating perspectives through film

The work in Art With Impact’s OLIVE Film Collection provides several examples of the truth of what mental illness looks like. Karen Hua’s film “Three” allows viewers to see for themselves what it might be like to live with obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety or an eating disorder. It also forces viewers to evaluate stereotypes around these conditions. Would you assume that the character with the eating disorder is the tall, blond girl who enjoys tap dancing? Or the brainy man of color who works as a teacher’s assistant?

When I experience meaningful art it allows me to make changes in my own life by giving me the gift of seeing my own reality reflected in ways I had never thought of before. By showing me, concretely, that I’m not alone. By proving that beauty exists in the midst of suffering, allowing me to cling to that fact when it seems like there’s nothing else to cling to.

How do you tell someone who’s suffering that “everything’s going to be okay” when you don’t know if that’s true? How do you share genuine hope and strength in the face of unforeseen realities and an unknowable future?

“FINE” by Saida Saetgareeva is another film that makes viewers question perception surrounding mental health. It slows down time for us between the moment that someone asks “how are you?” and the moment when you answer “fine.” We’re invited to see, feel and hear one person’s internal, invisible reality — a reality that is too often kept secret. What I love about this film is that it suggests, from a place of common understanding, the feeling of being grounded can lead to more realistic and hopeful explorations of next steps. Knowing that other people have experienced similar pain and come back to themselves.

The more we engage with one another about our experiences with mental health, the more we bring to light the realities of existence, and the more we can connect — in reality, with love and truth.

Cary McQueen, Executive Director, Art With Impact, [email protected]

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