TICAH Interview on Mental Health Artists Residency

How long have you been dealing with mental health issues, and how has the experience been?  What was the background of the workshop?

When the pandemic arrived in 2020, the mental health of the world deteriorated and the need to understand this space and to understand how to care for one’s mental health became paramount for artists and for the general community.  If the artists of the Rika Residency were ever going to tackle mental health challenges within their community, this would be the time.  TICAH helped to organise a week-long residency in partnership with the GoDown Arts Centre, who hosted the group, and Mental360, a mental health education and support organisation.  

We hosted 25 artists of many different practices (musicians, painters, sculptors, actors, and designers) to come together for the week to talk about mental health – what it is is, what it isn’t, how Kenyan culture views it/interacts with it, stigma, language surrounding mental health, self care techniques, when to seek help, and different kinds of therapy and treatments available.  The group also created individual and group artworks sharing their experiences in the mental health space and what they have learned from the discussions with the intention being to take the work on a tour of Nairobi to catalyse conversations about mental health.  The current lockdown and gathering ban has put this work on hold, but we are excited to get this going again when we can.

The Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health (TICAH) has been working with artists for almost 20 years through community murals, the development of an annual calendar, through the public arts space that we manage called DreamKona, and through an art therapy technique called body mapping that we use to help survivors of trauma find healing through story and art.

What outcome are you hoping will come out of the participants?

The aim was the show that mental health is just another aspect of overall health (it’s a neutral term) and not a negative element in and of itself as most of society views it.  Through the discussions, we hope the group of artists will start to be more conscious of mental health all around them – within themselves, within their families and communities, and how it is stigmatised – in order to start the process of normalising mental health conversations and care.  

Artists talking about mental health

Why is it that creatives are uncomfortable talking about this topic?

It’s not just creatives that struggle with talking about mental health; it’s everyone.  In fact, it can be argued that artists are much better at expressing their mental health joys/challenges and stories than others.  Just think about all those songs of angst or love throughout history.  

It’s difficult for people to talk about mental health in general.  People aren’t usually raised to see mental health as an area for prioritisation.  It’s actually the opposite for most people – emotional health is a private thing that everyone is expected to just know how to deal with (meaning cope with or repress) by oneself.  

The typical narrative that we are taught, from a young age, is that any kind of negative emotional or mental challenge we may face is embarrassing and shameful and not normal and needs to just go away quickly.  This is obviously the exact opposite of reality where, in fact, all people face negative emotional challenges all the time.  

The issue is that mental health is seen as this unusual thing that only a few people have to deal with versus a normal part of everyday health that we all must work on.  Until we can see mental health in this way we will continue to struggle to talk about it.

Based on your experience, which specific factors might be causing a higher number of mental health problems in the entertainment sector?

There are many cases of artists who have suffered from mental health challenges throughout history, but it’s unclear to me if this is actually more than in general society where such experiences would just be swept under the rug within the family and never talked about openly.  

The nature of an artist’s work lends itself to any mental health challenge becoming more apparent than within other careers (can we spot emotional turmoil in audit reports for example?).  This is not to diminish the pain and severity of the mental health challenges artists face at all.  In fact, it can be said that artists are more prone to emotional challenges as there are many reports and books that explore the numerous stories of highly creative people and the negative emotional challenges they faced suggesting a link between the two.  

We see mental health struggles within the arts community because it is shared in some way – through compulsions, addiction, lifestyle choices or through work – where it may be harder to spot in other fields or written off as something else other than a mental health issue.  There are so many people suffering (inside and outside the arts), and usually alone, and this is incredibly sad and unnecessary.

Are you familiar with any cases of mental health in the music industry?

I think everyone has seen how mental health manifests itself in art (music, fine arts, writing, etc.) – whether it’s positive or negative because mental health is love, joy, anger, jealousy, excitement, sadness, frustration, creative blocks, stress, grief...  I think the challenge is that when people talk about “mental health” they really are thinking about “mental illness,” and not even just the broad category of mental illness that includes four out of five people at any given time.  

When people think about mental health they think about “crazy people'' – basically an incorrect caricature of a tiny percentage of the mentally ill that has developed over time and is propagated because of misunderstanding and (frankly) fascination.  I understand the fascination (it’s dramatic and uninhibited and shocking), but it’s not what the majority of those with mental illness look like….  in fact, many times you can’t even tell that someone is working through a mental illness.

How extreme are these cases?

Yes, there are people in the arts sector who suffer from debilitating mental illnesses and proper care and treatment need to be real options for them.  It is up to all of us to understand more about mental health and de-stigmatise mental illness so that we can separate the person from the disease and know that these people aren’t their diseases just as we all know that someone with cancer isn’t a cancer in the world.  It’s the same with mental illness no matter how severe.  

Unfortunately, if you admit to having a mental illness this is many times what people remember and this can negatively skew how they see you.  I’m happy to say that this is changing, but slowly.  It’s important to understand that most people are able to recover from a mental illness or even from bouts of illnesses, and it’s never something that should define a person or their ability to positively function in the world.

Were there worryingly high mental illness levels in the creative industry even before COVID-19?

This was definitely something that we were hearing about more and more as we continued to talk with artists.  The community has the right intentions and wants to help but is also unsure how to move forward and how to really be helpful.  Often what we would hear is that “we need to be there for each other” and “we need to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers,” but what this means in practical and sustainable ways isn’t always known.  It is our hope that by opening the conversation and consciousness around mental health and mental illness that the community can begin to figure out how they can truly support one another through these challenges.

How can the creative industries offer better mental health care to artists?

First, it’s important to talk about it more and to normalise discussions about mental health in general.  The more we can share our experiences and can be open to hearing people’s experiences with mental health (whether it’s positive or negative) the more we can lessen the stigma people feel that keeps them from opening up.

In 2019 we supported the creation of an artists led residency program called the Rika Residency (“rika” means “peer” in Kiswahili).  In these spaces, artists come together, usually at DreamKona, to create art together and to discuss topics important to artists (how to navigate a professional career in the arts, how to deal with taxes, consignment, clients, agents, how to develop networks, etc).  The resident artist group is made up of different age sets, gender, arts practice and studio/collective.  Within these spaces issues of mental health challenges have come up many times with the artists desperately wanting to do something to support colleagues in need but also not knowing what to do or even how to approach mental health within their community.

How can artists take care of their mental health?

There are so many ways to care for your mental health.  Most people think you don’t need to pay any attention to mental health unless you are mentally ill.  This is just not so.  Mental health is just like regular health – to work on being physically healthy we have to pay attention to things like diet and exercise right?  It’s the same.

To work on having positive mental health there are so many things you can do and for not a lot of money:  diet (it does make a difference), getting enough sleep, managing stress, mindfulness (ex. meditation), practicing gratitude, service to others, getting sun, regular exercise, and being part of a supportive and positive community.  And just like regular health, even if you do everything to be healthy you can still get sick, right?  It’s the same with mental health too.  

Even if you do all the listed things, you can still end up with mental health challenges that need a bit more support on top of your self care practices and luckily there are many options here too:  many different kinds of therapy, many different kinds of medication, many different kinds of supplements, acupuncture, etc.  Unfortunately, many of these deeper level of options are dependent on your ability to pay for them, so there’s still a ways to go to make sure anyone who wants to access these services and treatments can.

What role can society play?

Again, until it’s a normal part of health and society, we need to talk more about mental health to demystify what it is and what it isn’t.  We need to broaden our awareness and our empathy.  We need to have better policies and better service options for those that need it.