By Ryann Tanap
There’s something very powerful about art. It allows the viewer to experience life from different perspectives. It’s therapeutic. It also has the power to intensify an experience. And with mental health topics becoming more commonplace in everyday conversation, it’s no surprise that we can experience it within the creative and performing arts community. Being able to glimpse mental illness through the diverse lenses of art can be transformative—which is exactly why I visited the Mindful: Exploring Mental Health Through Art exhibit earlier this year at the Society for Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh.
The Mindful exhibit provides a very unique approach to a crucial conversation in today’s society. We all know the statistics: One in five adults in America experiences a mental illness in any given year. One in 25 adults lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder. Therefore, it is important to put the experiences of those living with mental illness into context. It may even be surprising to learn that someone you know lives with a mental illness, whether or not he or she has been diagnosed. That means that some of the people we encounter every day are living in silence, often without a support network or access to adequate resources and treatment. Mindful, which features more than 30 works created by 14 contemporary artists, opens a door by showing what it is like to live with, or support someone who lives with, mental illness.
I admit that I was taken aback by the exhibit. Staff welcomed me into the space, and I was given a quick overview of the different pieces of art I would experience: There were 3D and 2D pieces as well as more intricate art installations, all of which really pulled at me. On a personal note, I’ve watched loved ones battle “invisible” illnesses, and even lost friends to suicide, so the artwork deeply resonated with me—some of it in ways I didn’t anticipate.
Among the pieces were social commentaries on our increasing reliance on medication for treating severe illnesses. There were political commentaries exploring the interconnectedness of power, waging war and inadequate health care for our country’s armed forces. There were also depictions of what it is like to try to reach out to a loved one living with depression, and what it is like to feel like you’ve failed. It was an intense exhibit, yet there was still an air of hope to each piece. By telling a narrative through art, perhaps the artists hope that their audiences will take their work as a motivating story (or a cautionary warning).
The great thing about art is that it is created and experienced in a safe space. Art, a form of creative expression and storytelling, lends itself to providing a unique immersion into the world of mental illness when it is created by individuals with lived experience. We can begin to break down stigma when we approach mental illness through the perspective of an artist or performer. No single person’s lived experience is the same, and we discover that their artwork, through sculpture, painting, writing, video and other mediums, captures the very real and human side to mental illness.
For those who would like an alternative introduction to mental illness, and for those who may already know the story behind mental health realities (whether it’s from lived experience or through someone you know), I encourage you to check out Mindful: Exploring Mental Health Through Art. This exhibit is a safe and creative conversation-starter for families, groups of friends, colleagues and the greater community. It will be on display in various art spaces through 2018, including:
Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art
Virginia Beach, VA
Jan. 27–April 17, 2017
Kaddatz Galleries and Lake Region Arts Council, McKnight Gallery
Fergus Falls, MN
Aug. 14–Oct. 7, 2017
Fuller Craft Museum
Nov. 15, 2017–April 22, 2018
Note: This piece is a reprint from the Fall 2016 Advocate.
We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.
Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.
Call the NAMI Helpline at
text "NAMI" to 741741
Find Your Local NAMI