By Meghan Power
“Conversely, art can visualize and portray mental health in a non-judgmental setting, opening doors to peer support for people who may previously have struggled with finding help. Creativity and self-expression are powerful tools to promote mental wellness, build self-esteem and reduce stigma, both for artists and community members who can benefit from shared experiences.”
A non-profit organization and registered charity, OBAD has undertaken numerous art-based public programs, through their creative arm SITEc PROJECTS, also providing access to free peer support groups for anyone, including family members, who may be impacted by mood disorders. With funding from CADA, OBAD has been able to break new ground by programming larger arts projects such as the major art exhibition Perspectives From Within, featuring visual artwork that critically engages with mental health. Curated by Dick Averns in partnership with Contemporary Calgary, the exhibit was about promoting individual and collective mental wellbeing by fostering personal self-reflection.
The potential for art to help optimize mental health is clear, says Dick. “Although one’s mental self-expression is often invisible, visual art, which also hinges on self-expression, can make mental wellness visible.” All artworks were based on lived experience of mental illness, with six Albertan artists sharing insight to the highs and lows of their circumstances. Depression, anxiety, addiction, self-harm, bipolar disorders, and schizophrenia were some of the realities laid bare.
Being able to support neurodivergent communities in a non-reactive way is important: “Many people seek out the services of OBAD in times of crises, for which most of their funding comes from Alberta Health Services. Mounting creative programs proactively, through funding from granting bodies like CADA is instrumental in reaching new audiences and supporting artists, many of whom are disadvantaged or marginalized. In this sense, CADA’s role is also vital to making sure artists whose work is valued yet often remains unseen, receive remuneration.”
Research indicates that 20% of people face mental distress, with COVID-19 having additional negative impacts on our broader community. Dick indicates that OBAD’s creative community engagement has played a meaningful and significant role at a crucial time: “Firstly, Perspectives From Within is a notable example of public programming that would not have been possible without funding from CADA. Secondly, this style of programming is essential in providing a wider understanding of mental wellness, and how to improve community wellness beyond formal supports such as doctors or medication.”
Building informal supports through art-based activities, with peers or family members, can act as a catalyst for difficult conversations and help reduce stigma. OBAD’s art-driven community engagement has fostered connections that formal supports such as medication or therapy may not always reach, helping build a wider understanding of mental health, and how to improve community wellness.