Through art, Stanford students open conversation about mental health

New anthology features student-created art work, all focused on emotional well-being

There are 129 pages of raw, intimate and powerful expressions of the experience of both mental and physical illness in "Release.Restart.Review," a literary arts anthology created by and for Stanford University students that focuses on emotional well-being.

There are poems, visual art pieces, self-portraits, short stories, non-fiction and fiction (and some likely a blend of the two) on depression, anxiety, therapy, suicide, cancer, family, body image – all written by Stanford students, some anonymously, but not all. The anthology, which was printed this month and distributed via hard copies on campus and an eBook online, is an effort to give voice to students' experience with these issues (and many others) on a campus where many students feel that open discussions about mental health are not part of the culture.

"At Stanford, there are two emotions that everyone talks about, which is being happy and being stressed," said senior Abby Belani, who led the student government team that created the anthology. "Everything else falls by the wayside. And if you're feeling anything else at any particular moment, you're encouraged to keep it quiet or to disguise it as one of those two things. So we wanted to get people talking about the sort of emotions that actually encourage them to create art, which is very rarely stressed."

Belani and six other students on the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) emotional well-being team came up with the idea last fall, motivated by the concept of using art as catharsis and hoping to proliferate the idea that "mental health is a spectrum beyond disease and illness," the book's introduction reads.

"The goal was to promote the idea that well-being is a spectrum, that it's daily, that there's a whole range of human emotion and it's not necessarily negative and it's not necessarily positive and you should feel free to express the entire range that we're capable of," said senior Caitlin Karasik, a well-being team member who edited the anthology.

"Seeking professional help is OK and it's fine and you should do it and you should take care of yourself, but also that there's mental health outside of the context of illness and outside of disease and that you should pay attention to it and it should be important every day, not just the days when you really need it or you're diagnosed," she added.

The group was one of two the ASSU created this year to focus on mental health. The well-being team's charge was more prevention-based, with the goal of making "a tangible impact on people's daily lives (and) influenc(ing) the actual emotional current of the student body," Karasik said, and the other's was focused on policy and resource advocacy.

The well-being team put out calls for submissions to the anthology during fall quarter and was overwhelmed with the amount of responses they received – a testament, they said, to the fact that students were craving an outlet for such expression. They also planned art workshops, one on visual arts and another on spoken word, both of which were led by student-artists working in those respective mediums. The anthology was timed to come out after this part of the programming was over and during Stanford's dead week/pre-finals period.

One of the workshop facilitators and a contributor the anthology was Ryoko Hamaguchi, a biology major also pursuing an interdisciplinary honors capstone project in the arts. Six months before hearing about "Release.Restart.Review," Hamaguchi had begun an interactive art project called "This is Beauty" through the Body Positive, a national grassroots nonprofit organization promoting eating disorder prevention, self-love and positive body image on various college campuses. She worked with undergraduate students to create portraits of themselves through an unusual process – either live, one-on-one or through photographs they provided – to merge their external image with their self-image.

Her own self-portrait is included in the anthology: A young Japanese woman with black eyes, red lips and instead of hair, pink flowers and a string of colorful circles that hang down the side of her face. In black handwriting on the top of her head is written: "Some days, I still cannot bear to face, let alone love, what I see in the MIRROR."

And on her cheek: "My beauty is grounded in my PAST but extends into the FUTURE."

Hamaguchi said the text in the piece represents her own reflection on her struggles with mental and emotional health – "as well as the personal growth and lessons that I have accrued from the process of recovery," she wrote in an email to the Weekly.

Her self-portrait is published between one student's reflection on the psychological connection to physical pain and another's battle with anorexia.

Hamaguchi called the anthology a "much-needed" platform for student expression – and celebration of – emotional well-being.

"As with many elite institutions, there are ample spaces and platforms to share and celebrate the students' countless achievements, but less opportunities to make our vulnerabilities visible to our peers," Hamaguchi said. "I think that the anthology is a tangible and much-needed message that we all have struggles – whether minor or life-changing, physical or emotional, apparent or invisible.

"By taking the anthology in our hands, flipping through the pages and seeing these works by fellow Stanford peers, I think we can begin embracing not only the idea that it is 'okay to feel not okay,' but also the need to continue opening up spaces for us to share these struggles."

Karasik, herself a writer, said another purpose was to support the idea that art can be "fruitful when it comes to your mental health and also that your mental health could be a source of good things."

Karasik said she originally didn't want to allow for anonymous submissions, but they received a significant number.

"That, to me, was such a sign of the times, really," Karasik said. "It's really hard to put your name on mental illness. It's really hard to label yourself. We're still not there yet."

She said, though, that she has noticed a shift over her four years at Stanford toward a willingness to talk about mental health issues more openly, whether it's a friend saying they had a therapy session that day or more frank conversations campuswide about use of the university's Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

Karasik and Belani, both graduating seniors, hope that the next iteration of the ASSU emotional well-being team continues to push Stanford in that direction.

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5 people like this
Posted by captainjohann
a resident of another community
on Mar 24, 2015 at 11:15 pm

From the time of Van gogh and may be earlier Art has always served as a refuge for Mentally ill

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