The Intersection of Mental Health and Creativity

Markie Pasternak, Senior Manager, Higher Education
Markie Pasternak, Senior Manager, Higher Education

When I was a freshman in college, I went to a talk on my campus about sharing your mental health story hosted by my Active Minds chapter for Mental Health Awareness Month. At the time, I was a new mental health advocate, someone who had only been diagnosed with OCD two years prior. Still weeding through the stigmas and false messages I had learned about mental health while growing up, I was becoming eager to start sharing my story in hopes that other people could get resources and treatment sooner than I had. 

The talk was being done by a mental health advocate in the Milwaukee community who worked for a local hospital near our campus. Even though over ten years have passed since I heard her speak, and as someone who now works for Active Minds and has heard numerous talks about storytelling around mental health, the metaphor the speaker used still sticks with me today as the most profound way of understanding what it means to talk about a personal mental health journey. 

“A personal story is like a gemstone,” the speaker started. “Maybe it is a diamond or a ruby or an emerald, but each story of a mental health journey is different, valuable, and precious. Each story illuminates its unique color and has been shaped into a different cut, making it all the more valuable. But because you own this gem, you control what you do with it.”

She described how you can cusp your gem in your hands and peek at it through the cracks of your fingers, letting no one else see it. You can open your hands and extend them away from yourself to show someone your gem. You can even make your gem into a necklace and wear it out the door for all to see. As the owner of this gem, you can also choose which parts to show. Do you want people to see every edge and crevice, or do you just want them to be stunned by the initial color and shine?

To me, this metaphor acknowledged the element of vulnerability present when you choose to share your personal mental health story with others. People could say something about it that hurts you or have a reaction to it you did not want them to have. Someone could even take the gem away from you, it could get scratched or even broken once it leaves the safety of your own hands.

But if we don’t take the chance to share at least some of our stories, then stories are never shared.  And when people’s stories are shared with others carefully and compassionately, they have the power to be inspirational, a motivation for new ideas and change.

Throughout the years since I heard this talk, I have seen a diverse array of people share their mental health stories through a variety of creative avenues like singing, painting, dancing, poetry, acting, and other forms of art. Mental health expression in art can be found anywhere, from an op-ed in your college’s newspaper about mental health awareness month, or a street performer downtown playing a song on their guitar, to express their feelings to a projection of a Vincent van Gogh painting advertised as “immersive art” at your local museum. I have even chosen to share my own story through writing a personal blog, my preferred form of creative expression. But no matter which medium is used, storytellers all have one thing in common: the desire to make the mental physical and the calling to express what is happening inside to the outside.

Whether it is in the form of a story, a drawing, or a song, I hope if you’re reading this post that you can find the courage within yourself to share your gems with others however you choose to express them and however much of the gem you choose to show. Moreover, I hope that when somebody shares their story with you, in any form, you honor their expressions as the valuable gems they are, truly one-of-a-kind and precious. 

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