Reflections on the role of art in the mental health ecosystem

Dear Friends,

Over the past couple months I’ve had the privilege of speaking at a couple conferences focused on mental health at colleges and universities. These conferences have been enormously useful to me in many ways and have left me feeling even more excited and impassioned about the work happening through the Art With Impact Network.

On this rainy San Francisco morning as I reflect on these experiences, I thought I’d take a moment to share some of my thoughts on the specific role that art can play in creating a world where everyone can communicate freely and fearlessly about their mental health.

One thing that is abundantly clear to me from attending gatherings filled with people committed to student wellness is that AWI exists in a beautiful ecosystem. We’re all working to get to the same place. Where people don’t have to suffer needlessly because of mental illness. Where mental health resources are both widely accessible and individually tailored. Where shame and fear play no part in the decision to (not) seek treatment. Where suicide and the other tragic outcomes that can stem from mental illness are a thing of of the past.

It’s obvious that to get to this utopian future we’re going to need a wide range of approaches. Mental health is personal. No one outreach campaign or treatment plan is going to work for every person, so we need to be creative in exploring opportunities that can transform our culture. I believe that art has a very important role in this ecosystem.

Now. I know that defining “art” has never been an easy task. So I’ll tell you what I mean when I make a distinction between art and other forms of communication. To me, art consists of creations designed to reflect our world and our culture that create space for people to ask themselves questions about their assumptions, beliefs, values, ideas, communities. And what’s beautiful about art is that the artist doesn’t control how someone else will receive their work. Artists create from their hearts, using the full spectrum of conscious and unconscious mind, and communicate on a level that is different from day-to-day conversation.

I consider the work in the OLIVE Film Collection to be pieces of art. These are personal stories about mental health told in wildly creative ways that elicit a broad range of emotional and intellectual responses from audiences, based on what each person brings to their viewing experience*. So why is this important? Why do we need art to change the culture about mental illness? Why aren’t anti-stigma / awareness campaigns enough? Surely, if everyone just knew all the facts about mental illness then the stigma around it would go away?

But, of course, it’s not that simple. Stigma is such a complicated topic that we spend at least five minutes unpacking it at every single one of our workshops. What makes it so insidious is the fact that while stigma is always untrue and always negative, stigmatized beliefs can be internalized as real… to the point that you don’t even notice them. For me, (whose job it is to work every single day against the stigma around mental illness) I am STILL discovering old stigmatized beliefs around mental illness that have sunken into my psyche without me even noticing they’re there.

The only way to get these erroneous beliefs out into the open is to look at them with our whole selves. We need to use verbal and nonverbal communication; visual, auditory, tactile and physical modes of learning; our conscious and unconscious brain; we need art.

So that’s why we’re here as part of this ecosystem of change. Art With Impact’s workshops create experiences where young people to engage meaningfully with art so they can explore for themselves what they believe, who they want to be, and where they want to go. Our amazing team of educators are committed to creating spaces that encourage self-reflection and exploration. We’re growing our reach every single month and are honored to be working with some of the most forward-thinking and holistic colleges and universities in North America.

I thank you for coming with us on this journey. Whether you’re a student, staff, faculty, volunteer, donor, advocate, or something else, every single member of the Art With Impact Network plays an important role in using art to change the world. I hope to connect with you in person at one of our upcoming workshops, conferences, or special events.

In solidarity,


P.S. If you’re interested in more information about mental health on college campuses, a recent SAMHSA blog post pulled together some of the statistics quantifying the great need we face:

“About 1 in 10 incoming freshmen reports feeling depressed frequently. The 2015 Annual Report for the Center for Collegiate Mental Health states that the use of college counseling centers grew by 30 percent, even though enrollment only increased by 5 percent. In addition, students’ concerns are increasingly complex. The percentage of students visiting college counseling centers who have a serious mental illness nearly tripled Policy between 2000 and 2010. Among counseling center clients, about 1 in 3 has contemplated suicide, and 1 in 10 has made an attempt.”


* Did you know that on our website you and go to any film from our library and, from there, link to all the workshops where it’s been featured? On the individual workshop pages we include the powerpoint presentations from each event where we capture participants’ thoughts and feelings about each film they experience. I dare you to find any two workshops where the audience had the same reaction to a single film.

All content on Art With Impact is available to all, free of charge and without ads. If articles like this are valuable to you, please consider supporting Art With Impact.
This matters!