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Art and mental health: how creative outlets give a voic...



Art and mental health – how creative outlets expose stigma and give a voice to the unsaid

The experience of stigma and discrimination often remains invisible. It can be upsetting to talk about and hard to describe. (Photo: riliv.co / Wikipedia)

We are using creative activities to research stigma and marginalisation as a result of mental distress, disability or a refugee background.

There’s growing recognition that creative pursuits like painting, singing or dancing can have a positive impact on physical and mental health, can lessen isolation and can increase connection to community.

Creative activities can also be an effective and safe way to learn about people’s life experiences, especially those that are upsetting or hard to talk about.

Our team uses art as a research tool to help increase understanding about mental health and well-being, and to build better systems of care and support.

We are using art to learn about stigma and marginalisation as a result of mental distress, disability or a refugee background. We collaborated with 35 people who identify as women, who told us that making art and being creative was a powerful tool for self-empowerment.

Invisible torment

Women who experience mental illness, disability or who have a refugee background routinely face stigma and discrimination. This can have profound effects, including reduced quality of life, barriers to accessing healthcare, reduced employment prospects, reduced access to affordable housing and diminished opportunity to experience motherhood.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Mental health struggles are not about weakness – but wilfully ignoring somebody’s pain is

The experience of stigma and discrimination often remains invisible. It can be upsetting to talk about and hard to describe. Creative activities, such as making art, can help bring these experiences to light. Art can offer a way to express things that are tricky to say out loud.

As one participant in our study reflected: “Sometimes I don’t have the words for things… [art was] a really alternative way to express something without having to necessarily have the words for it.”

Art can act like a mnemonic (prompting memories and recollections), can help people feel relaxed and safe when exploring upsetting experiences, can help people feel in control of their own stories, and can enable them to share these stories in ways they feel comfortable with.

In our research we used a form of art creation called  body mapping.

Mapping stigma

Body mapping involves tracing your body onto a large piece of paper or fabric and then decorating this outline by drawing, painting, sewing, collage and writing.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Persons living with mental illness face major challenges accessing disability grant

The body maps that participants created are visually striking, and each one tells a unique life story. These body maps were used as a jumping-off point to discuss the themes and experiences they encompass.

Participants explored the way stigma exists on a spectrum, ranging from subtle (indifference or ignorance) to overt (bullying, verbal and physical abuse). One participant wrote the words “now let’s add stigma” on her map to represent the way stigma had made it hard and scary to seek medical support.

When we spoke about her map, she told us: “I thought mental illness was like you’re locked away in a psych ward and left to die, that there is no help […] that’s what I got from social media and television.”

Another participant represented her body as a multicoloured jigsaw puzzle to symbolise the “many fragments and pieces that make you, you”. The jigsaw also represented her experience of healthcare, with doctors only seeing one piece of her and not acknowledging or offering support for other pieces.

She said: “People with disabilities are people first and have mental health needs just like the rest of the world. These people have been overlooked.”

Stigma was often identified as the reason participants felt the need to hide their feelings or pretend they were not struggling.

One participant drew two bodies on her map to represent this – to show that a person works to the point of exhaustion every day to make sure they’re presenting themselves in an appropriate way, but behind the scenes is something people don’t see.

Participants also used maps to celebrate their strength, resilience and the positive influences in their lives like friends, family, pets and nature. Making art was a common positive influence.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “My hellish journey into Gauteng’s mental health services as a bipolar person

Participants saw art as an avenue for self-expression, meditation, relaxation and a way to process feelings. Participants also told us making art as part of the research project allowed them to take stock and reflect on their experiences.

They also used the research as an opportunity to reach new artistic heights. As one participant reflected: “My body map is by far the greatest piece of art I have created.”

The power of art

An important takeaway from this work is the power and importance of art in well-being, health and social inclusion.

Participants said they wished body mapping workshops, or other free creative activities, were regularly accessible.

Having a safe, supportive space to be creative and share their experiences with others was affirming and therapeutic. Art was a powerful way to share stories, shine a light on injustice, and encourage empathy and respect for difference.

One participant said it best: “It’s empowering for everybody to have a voice [through art] and to be able to tell their story. That’s powerful.” DM168

First published by The Conversation.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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