Many glorify the idea of ‘the tortured artist,’ much like Vincent van Gogh cutting off his ear and the world making the story infamous. While many are under the impression that artists are some of the happiest people with beautiful imaginations and immense creativity, some struggle with mental health. Creatives often deal with the double-edged sword of using art as a vice and coping mechanism, but in some cases, art can be the cause of stress.
In a space where artists in major museums in the United States are 85% white and 87% male and mental health problems are extremely stigmatized in minority communities, these spaces can be hard to navigate. While art can serve as a way for Black and Indigenous people and creatives of color to express their identity on canvas, mental health issues shine through for many.
While some aren’t aware of the intersections of identity, creativity and mental health, I think it’s time to talk about it, so who better to speak on the issues than Black and Indigenous people and people of color creatives at USC!
Before we dive into how art and mental health intersect, we must first look at how mental health affects underrepresented communities. In many minority communities, mental health issues are seen as taboo because they are equated to weakness. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, in the Black community, 63% believe depression to be a sign of weakness, and amongst other marginalized communities, the same sentiment rings true.
For Mary Odusami, a sophomore majoring in biology, growing up in Black communities in Nigeria and the United States also meant idolizing perceived strength and casting away potential mental health issues.
“I think that Blackness has become very much acquainted with a kind of strength,” Odusami said. “It’s not really a positive strength, but it’s more so … ‘how much can you tolerate?’. … When we do see strength, we glamorize and romanticize that while also breaking down the person.”
At other times, members of the Black community feel that mental health problems can be cured through prayer. During slavery, when religion was a foundation to survival for many, they looked to prayer, and that ideology has remained. For Daric Cottingham, a second-year master’s student in the specialized journalism program for entertainment and sports, this helped him deal with anxiety and figure out his identity.
“I’m from the South, for one,” Cottingham said. “A raised Baptist. So I come from a very much so poor part of the Black community where it’s pray away depression, pray away anxiety, pray away the thoughts.”
In many cases, minorities lack accessible mental health services and awareness; these two things are often out of reach and associated with something only white people could have.
“Pray away the thoughts is the notion when it comes to mental health, or [that] those are not Black people problems,” Cottingham said. “The versions of it are like generational curses instead of calling it trauma, or calling it, ‘Oh, I may have anxiety’ or ‘I may have depression.’”
In some cases, mental health isn’t even taught, and with a lack of formal teaching, people go to other forms of education like television. Even then, TV shows with underrepresented people as protagonists use the “Flawless Token” trope and don’t display mental health issues because they are viewed as a negative representation of the community. In actuality, though, the Flawless Token trope can hinder our perception of mental health issues in non-white characters.
“When you look at a children’s TV show, for example, the few times you see a Black heroine depicted, she’s usually perfect,” Odusami said.
This is the case for many movies because, as Odusami explains, white characters have the ability to go through a tough time mentally without eroding their worth, much like in the film “Eat, Pray, Love,” where protagonist Liz Gilbert goes through a journey of self-discovery and comes out on top. Sadly, minorities don’t have these films.
From the perspective of many in various minority communities, mental health was never seen as a necessary topic to cover because external factors like racism or poverty were of seemingly greater importance. For Yong Loh, a Cantonese-Malaysian senior majoring in film and TV production, mental health was her parents’ last worry while growing up.
“I know that there’s kind of different struggles within each generation,” Loh said. “Like both my parents grew up in poverty, and they always would say things to me like ‘We’re more focused on that than our mental health’ and ‘we were too busy looking for food to eat’ and that kind of thing.”
Because of this lack of dialogue, people aren’t often given the opportunity to talk to someone when it’s needed most, leaving them feeling as though their emotions aren’t valid. Many, like Alexia Sambrano, a junior majoring in neuroscience and cognitive science, felt their concerns would be overlooked when expressing them to their Latinx family.
“I felt like if I did talk about these issues that I would just be dismissed or that my concerns wouldn’t be taken seriously,” Sambrano said. “And also that I was bothering someone or annoying them or acting like a burden if I were to speak up about these issues.”
In the creative realm, the influence of mental health is like two sides of a coin. For some, art has presented unnecessary stress for those who feel they need to produce work for people to appreciate constantly. Rather than enjoying the medium, people add unnecessary pressure to themselves, thinking a lack of work means they’ll be forgotten. This can be detrimental to those who post their art to social media, especially in a landscape where unrealistic expectations of a perfect life exist, which, in turn, exacerbate feelings of isolation, loneliness and anxiety.
“[Instagram has a way] of creating all these deadlines that don’t really exist and all this pressure that shouldn’t really be there,” Loh said. “And [for some] you can see the real kind of benefits of supposedly sticking to a schedule and having you work to churn out every single day, but that’s kind of just a byproduct of being in a capitalist society.”
In those moments where art begins to feel more like added work and less like a passion, Sambrano recommends taking a step back to reconnect with that medium on the artist’s own terms.
“Just pause what you’re doing and reconnect with that same medium, but in a way that you want to do it, not because a professor or your employer told you to,” Sambrano said. “Disconnecting from your obligations to your passion and connecting again with why you fell in love with the passion has been really a great way for me to remind myself why I’m making art and why it means so much to me.”
For others, like Odusami, mental health issues allow people to create vulnerable works of art that allow them to recognize and work through their emotions. When ideas become too overwhelming, creatives can express and cope through art, much like art therapy. This is especially important when therapy isn’t accessible because of price or stigma.
“I think it has definitely helped me tap into more vulnerable work,” Odusami said. “I think it’s definitely been the moments where I’m grappling with something I might not even notice and I finally can put pen to paper, or realistically, phone to Notes app and something comes out of it. And I’m like, ‘Oh, guess I needed to work through that.’”
In the mental health and creativity realms, what artists really want is more dialogue and transparency to rid the stigma surrounding mental health in minority communities. When more people are open to conversations about their struggles, others will feel more comfortable sharing too.
“People share the good; they don’t share the bad,” Cottingham said. “And the one thing I try to do all the time is actually just share it all.”
By sharing with others the hard times that they are dealing with, people normalize the struggles that others also have. This honesty will allow others to open up and hopefully rid of the stigma surrounding mental health.
With dialogue as meaningful as it is, some people need professional help. But in a space where 86% of psychologists are white, it’s hard for people to find someone who can relate to them on an interpersonal and cultural level. Thus meaning, schools, workplaces, etc. need more Black and Indigenous people and people of color therapists.
“It would be very difficult for me to enter a space from someone who doesn’t have the cultural background of a Latinx person,” Sambrano said. “It would take a lot longer for me to have to explain why I feel certain things or why there are certain social norms or things like that that are within the Latinx community that make my experience navigating certain spaces within the mental health industry a lot harder.”
For Loh, spaces for Black and Indigenous people and people of color to solely exist are of great importance. Underserved communities as a whole experience a ton of collective trauma and negative external forces such as racism and poverty, andmany find it hard to find safe spaces.
“I think there’s just so much that can be done and I feel like our imagination and the way [we] dream is even such a colonized thing,” Loh said. “You know, unfortunately, we can’t even imagine how things really should be sometimes because we’re so used to how things have been.”
Marginalized communities in the creative space need these outlets for forms of expression but also need the right support to ease off the many added pressures presented. So for what it’s worth, we need to create the art that allows us to sit back and breathe. We can’t always be Superman, but Clark Kent is just as worthy, right?
Marlize Duncan is a sophomore writing about overlooked USC Black and Indigenous creatives and creatives of color tackling the intersection of their work & minority social issues. Her column, “The Minority Support” typically runs every other Tuesday.