Mental Health > Art
by Laura Farrell
Mental health is more important than art. I know many who would disagree with this statement. I know artists who put themselves in situations to “create.” I know artists who won’t leave unhealthy situations because they are being “artistically productive” or “making important work.” Often times I encounter people that are in triggering, depressing, abusive, or oppressive situations (we all are in some ways, of course, living in the society we live in) because they think it enhances their work. I know many artists who push against these things, but in doing so still do not value their own mental health. It may be because it’s not as important as the thing they want to say, or the thing they want to create. It may be because they can’t see out of their depression or situation. It may be a lack of awareness or understanding.
It’s important to say that I am all of these people (sometimes). I am now trying to learn how not to be any of these people. I write about mental health, oppression and my experiences within a culture of violence. There are moments when I get lost in the words about trauma and feel triggered. At these times I often continue to work in this “triggering space” and it can be detrimental. In a way, it feels like I am perpetuating these cycles of trauma. Sometimes I stay in a relationship that is oppressive and harmful because I feel a creative energy when with this person or because the drama drives me to write stories.
I don’t know why this exists and I am trying to address these issues. I’m trying to learn self-care. I’m trying to learn to listen to my mind and my body. My mind and body are valuable tools that I use everyday to create and to do all the other things one must do. The brain is a muscle just like any other in the body; it grows tired and sick. Sometimes I ignore this muscle because the pain isn’t as easy to understand as the pain we feel in other parts of the body. It’s also a more difficult pain to fix. In my mind, mental health is the most important thing. I have not always focused on this truth. Of course, art is important as well. But it is crucial that we work towards valuing mental health in art.
The creation of art ideally leads to the viewing, listening or reading of the piece of work. That experience, being looked at or having work viewed, can be unnerving. I have trouble sharing my writing with others, as it feels too personal at times. In grade school and middle school I played the trumpet. Before a concert I would become so anxious that I could not play because my hands would shake. The same was the case when testing in front of my instructor, which eventually led me to quit the instrument, though I had previously enjoyed it.
The eye of the viewer or critic can be judgmental. Often times feedback, reviews, or theory surrounding art is negative, harsh, and critical. Even in the most positive reviews, constructive criticism is offered. Criticism of creation is a tough pill to swallow. I recently started feeling comfortable sharing my writing with friends. Some feel as though it is a gift, and they thank me for sharing with them and offer advice on ways in which I can improve the work. I have also shared my work online, and have received negative feedback, people typing into a comment box about the ways in which they think what I have to say is “unimportant” or “poorly done.” It makes me fearful to share and a bit depressed. I often write about matters that are deeply personal and at times these negative reactions can feel like an attack.
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Sometimes I wish there was a way to soften that critical voice, to express only positive feedback, to acknowledge that taste does not have a fixed pattern. In others words I don’t want to yuck anyone’s yums. Comparison can be debilitating. Perhaps I am being idealistic. I’ve heard from others that creating work is in a way “asking for it.” I understand this point of view, but I do not think it has to be that way. Often times artists will speak or answer to this critical voice because of the desire for success, fame, and creation. The thought that “It is important to be best,” or “above the curve,” impacts how one makes work. It should not have to be a competition; at least I wish it did not have to be. Mental health should prevail in art.
Mental health is more important than art. I know it is never simple, mental health. It isn’t easy to maintain. It is work. It fluctuates and changes. Every individual may be triggered by different things. Every individual has a different mind, body, and chemistry that influences the function of their mind’s neurons. I myself do not always know why something sparks a certain feeling — a certain unwellness — but I try to listen to this voice, to bow to my experiences, to and work towards comfort. I can’t claim to always be good at this. Sometimes I become am too depressed to work within a space where the goal is to be focused on feeling better. Sometimes I am having a break down and can’t see beyond it; it makes it difficult to see the big picture. Sometimes too many things have happened that I can’t let go of; we all fixate at times.
I do admit that these experiences influence the work I make. Sometimes it feels good to work within that frame of mind and work within these emotions, experiences, and thoughts because it feels like a release. What scares me is when someone values those uncomfortable spaces or frames of mind for the production of art more than they value their mental health. I do this at times as well, taking my self to a place of mental unwellness to make the thing I want to make.
I often write about triggering events or moments of trauma in my life. At times this helps me work through the issues at hand but at other times it brings me back to a dark place. When I reach that darkness there are moments when I revel in it for production of work but generally this causes greater harm on my brain and body. It is important to care for my mind while making work.
I once used all medical records and journal entries from a time in which I was facing my own mental and physical health challenges to make a zine. I became so immersed in the dark memories and had trouble getting out of that head space. After I finished making the zines I had to spend time away from them before I could view them or share them. I ended up not making work for a long while after this experience.
I think we are all guilty of putting ourselves in situations that compromise or do not at all consider our mental health. I want to press against this notion. I want to make art that presses against this. I want to make art that is a discussion about these issues. Because mental health is the most important thing. I am learning.