Art & mental health: building skills, processing emotions

Junior Hailey Halfmann’s piece ‘looks like someone who has it all together, but her eyes are saying something else’ she said

Junior Macy Escobar admits depression and anxiety have been “a constant battle,” and says she uses art as a way to cope with difficult feelings. “Sometimes instead of confiding in other people I just do art, and let it out on paper.”

Junior Macy Escobar only did half a face in her self-portrait

Classmate Jonathan Franz says he learned in school that those who live with mental health issues often try to — literally — put on a brave face, but that really studying faces, and how certain emotions engage specific facial muscles, can reveal a deeper truth.

And even when someone’s face doesn’t reveal a struggle, junior Hailey Halfmann says, “you can’t always see what someone is going through from looking at them, (so) you should always be kind and help everyone, no matter what.” 

Pretty heavy stuff for a high school art class.

Olivia Miller’s 24 advanced drawing & painting students recently took photos of themselves as their faces tried to convey an emotion. At its base, the unit was about drawing facial features accurately. The deeper task: to process a mood or feeling through their art. 

“We talked about how our emotions are on the right hemisphere of our brains and our speech is on the left,” Miller said. “Since creativity and emotions share the right hemisphere, sometimes sitting down and painting your feelings can be more beneficial than talking. We have all felt so angry or excited that words cannot express it adequately or fully. Sometimes painting can do a better job.”

Teacher Olivia Miller

Working it Through, Stomping Stigma

Miller said she did the unit with students last year, using colored pencils instead of paint. Through her own graduate school work, Miller said, she was inspired by a modern art movement that had to do with mental health as technology and innovation were advancing. 

“I think these ideas in modern art (about the psychological effects on people from machines and mass production) can be compared to the technological revolution,” Miller said. “We are asking a lot of the same questions now, such as, are we damaging mental health as technology increases? Are authentic relationships and in-person communication suffering? Getting students to look at the modern art era allows them to analyze these issues and relate it to their contemporary art.”

Junior Emma Seddon’s self-portrait

The statistics of how many students struggle with depression and anxiety are “staggering,” Miller said, “so I figured, why not teach a lesson that can be a great emotional outlet, allow them to quietly reflect on who they are and get in touch with their feelings.”

Macy said the further she gets into any piece of art she’s working on, “the more I calm down. The sense of accomplishment when finishing a piece makes my heart fly. To be proud of your own work can be hard. But this time I’m quite satisfied.”

Junior Emma Seddon tried to convey “pure anger” with her piece. Her hope, “that we try to erase the negative stigma around mental health and mental illness,” she wrote in a statement.

“About half of those struggling with mental illness are unable to get proper treatment,” Emma added. “I firmly believe that everyone who feels the need for treatment should be able to receive the care needed to live comfortably and happily.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

1 COMMENT

  1. Erasing the stigma of mental illness requires the same effort erasing the stigma of rape did, declining to cooperate with those who direct it. 

    As you may recall it took generations for us to so decline, but one day a small group of personally empowered women told us to stop, we had done enough harm. Our consciousness raised, we stopped. I am certain we can stop again, though it may again take a group of personally empowered women. 

    Harold A. Maio, retired mental health editor

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