Content Warning: This article contains frank descriptions of mental illness and suicide.
“The tears in our eyes and the smiles on our faces is how we react to art,” says What It’s Like Project board member Katy Manning to the nodding crowd of over 120 supporters assembled at The Jung Center. The Black White Gala, held November 9, honored Houston-area creatives whose work seeks to destigmatize mental illness.
Among the artists featured was the duo of poets Anachristina Chapa and Christopher Diaz of Write About Now, who delivered a fish knife to the gut with their performance of their popular “Anxiety is like…” As blisteringly funny as it is aching, the poem gives a powerful voice to the reality of life with an anxiety disorder.
“The reception of our performance at the Black White Gala was great. It was definitely something that resonated strongly with the audience and we felt it definitely made a big impact,” says Chapa.
Diaz agrees. “No matter where we perform the poem, people always come up to us and thank us. Some say that we said all the things they can’t articulate themselves, some tell us about friends or family they have that deal with anxiety, and almost all of them tell us keep doing what we’re doing because it’s important. It’s weird… I don’t think Ana and I ever really thought about how far the poem would go outside of the national poetry slam competition.”
The two began collaborating with the What It’s Like Project when co-founders Jeff Thompson and Nikki Hune attended a Write About Now event. Thompson performed, and he and Diaz proceeded to, as the latter describes, “fanboy over each other’s poetry.” One invitation to participate in a What It’s Like event later, and a long-term, mutually productive relationship formed.
Performances like Chapa and Diaz’s embody the What It’s Like Project’s core ethos. Hune launched the nonprofit in 2016 – the gala took place on the organization’s first birthday – following a suicide attempt. She moved back to Houston from Philadelphia to begin treatment. Immersing herself in multiple creative pursuits provided her with integral outlets for healing.
“I started playing music with friends when I started feeling better and I realized I began feeling even better after playing music. I began intensively writing poetry and painting, letting it soothe my mental illness,” she says.
“I had the idea to film a documentary about suicide in Houston and teamed up with soon-to-be board members for the script-writing process. We realized making a documentary is much more of a long-term project and decided to host an art show by those living with mental illness in the meantime. We have continued to grow since then.”
Their most notable expansion includes the events VOXIS (spoken word and acoustic) and EXPOSIS (visual arts), both held earlier this year.
EXPOSIS, notably, invited 10 participants who have faced psychosis. One of the more insidious and overlooked aspects of mental illness stigma places people with mental health conditions within a hierarchy based on external assumptions of their engagement with reality. Psychosis is one of the more marginalized diagnoses. What It’s Like Project’s decision to feature these creators speaks to a commitment to ensuring that destigmatizing efforts don’t begin and end with the comparatively more common mental illnesses.
“The more we talk about it, the more stigma starts to dwindle,” says Manning. “I hope What It’s Like Project’s work will serve to normalize things like this so more people feel comfortable speaking freely.”
For all the effort What It’s Like Project puts into supporting and showcasing creators of all types who wish to educate audiences about mental illness, the founders and board members themselves also take comfort and find inspiration in the community they build.
“I’ve been using music for as far as I can remember to use as [a coping mechanism]…” says co-founder Edward Odom.
“[Mental illness] is hard to put into words, and that’s why I put it into music. It’s almost just like an impulse. I’ve always been very drawn to music from a young age, and I don’t really know that I can recognize what I was going through around age 10 or 11 when I started playing instruments,” he continues. “I started out with drums but really found my passion with guitar… I just always connected with music.”
The arts, be they performing or visual, serve as effective outlets for creative individuals to externalize the internal. They also provide an opportunity for audiences to better understand how mental illness works straight from the involved minds themselves. Not from doctors. Not from stereotypes. However, even among creators with mental illness, dangerous attitudes regarding mental illness as something of a superpower continue to poison progress.
Stigma doesn’t always involve denying the existence of depression, anxiety, psychosis, and other conditions. People with mental illness who channel their experiences into music, painting, etc. often grapple with gaslighting from two ends. The one we more commonly tend to talk about when the discussion of mental illness stigma even comes up involves framing mental illness as either a character flaw or inherently violent, if not outright denying that it doesn’t even exist.
The other is more insidious in its subtlety, often justifying its harm under a pretense of progressivism. Such an attitude actively discourages artists from seeking treatment by mental health professionals and demonizes medication as a control mechanism designed by jealous normies to dull their shine. In more extreme cases, it almost fetishizes mental illness as intellectual and/or creative superiority. Authors Joe Hill and Julia Fierro have both written about just how damaging such an attitude can be to a career.
Hune agrees. “I chose not to take medication at many points in my life because I felt I had lost my creativity. Every time I went off medication, my mental illness symptoms emerged shortly afterward. I can’t speak too much about medication in a general way, but I can from experience.”
“There is a way to utilize both [therapy and art]. I have learned to discuss medication side effects with my psychiatrist and work with him to better enhance my life and not let it impact my creativity. In the past, I didn’t know how to talk with my psychiatrist; I felt like I didn’t have a voice,” she continues. “Now, I feel like I have a voice – but sometimes it’s hard to adhere and maintain complete stability and in times like those I have to have a therapeutic team I can lean on to keep my foundation straight.”
Director of The Jung Center and practicing psychotherapist Sean Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., who delivered the keynote address at Black White Gala, advises, “The key question for artists should be: am I able to function in the world in a generative and meaningful way? Because if I can’t function, if I cannot maintain relationships and take care of those mundane but essential tasks required to survive, I will not be able to continue to create for very long.”
“Many, many successful, productive, and pathbreaking artists seek treatment and find that it allows them to better bring their voice into the world. Avoiding treatment when you are suffering likely has many roots, but one of them often is our internalized cultural stigma about mental illness. It’s a dangerous denial of reality,” he continues.
One of the most notable aspects of What It’s Like Project’s mission is that it acknowledges the full spectrum ways stigma can interfere with a creator’s healing. They place emphasis on encouraging participants to find their own unique paths toward treatment rather than a convenient one-size-fits-all approach.
Such a nurturing mindset permeated the Black White Gala. Patrons chatted frankly with one another about their experiences with mental illness, creating an atmosphere at once lively and gentle. When some audience members began crying during the events, friends and strangers alike reached out to provide comfort, uplifted through art and uplifted through community.
Dr. Fitzpatrick’s keynote expanded the scale of the evening to focus on expansive history of the relationship between art and mental illness. Titled “I don’t mind if I lose my mind,” the talk weaved the work of indie punk band Titus Andronicus (whose lyrics provided the title) with medieval culture, Carl Jung, Michel Foucault, and his own medical practice to provide a richer context to the origins and impact of stigma.
“The ways that society treated lepers during the Middle Ages created a pathway for society to follow in treating the mentally ill,” he says. “We increasingly became committed as a culture to the fantasy that reason is not only superior to unreason, but that unreason needs to be eliminated… Unreason is the true scandal.”
According to Dr. Fitzpatrick, the mental illness stigma we know and don’t love today stems directly from this vilification of the irrational. Humanity’s simultaneous revulsion and fascination with mental illness – he points out that eighteenth century families considered asylum patients as zoo animals and visited them as light entertainment – often leads to the rubbernecking-inspired grotesqueries we see in the media today. The constant scapegoating of the mentally ill following mass shootings is the biggest, and most damaging, example.
As its second year begins, What It’s Like Project plans to reach out further to embrace creators outside of Houston. The Black White Gala concluded with Jose Cortes announcing the #stARTendingstigma campaign. It launched with a series of encouraging videos by mostly local artists who have previously worked with the nonprofit. Each of them spoke about their mental health, their art, and their hopes for the future, followed by an invitation to join them.
#stARTendingstigma is a cross-platform initiative where anyone who wishes to speak their minds and share their experiences about mental illness, art, stigma, and society. Use it on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and/or YouTube to take part. Help What It’s Like Project spread the reality of mental illness and the role art can and does play in therapy.
“I think people are beginning to talk about mental illness more than 10 or five years ago. However, I still think there remains a great deal of stigma. The key is to never stop talking about it because awareness and education are so important in helping those find recovery,” says Hune.
“People living with mental illness have a voice and this is a chance to show it.”
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