During this Coronavirus pandemic and lockdown in South Africa Ethekwini PRC & Durban Art Gallery present Art in Mental Health: The Empathy and Hope Project as part of their Creative Couch sessions in the Arts spaces facilitated by Ukhozi FM’s Nongcebo McKenzie which was broadcast on their social networks every Monday at 11am with different topics on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube pages and remains available on the PRC TV YouTube page.

This past Monday Nongcebo McKenzie sat down with Chantelle Booysen who is a Global Mental Health Advocate & Social Impact Entrepreneur and Ndabenhle Myeza who is Behavioral Psychologist. 

Art and Mental Health, how do these two elements complement each other?
• These 2 themes complement each other in so many ways. In this particular traveling exhibition my aim was to create a visual communication tool, a conversation point on topics and themes that are incredibly difficult for people to talk about in everyday life. In many communities and inter-personal relationships, talking about depression, anxiety, loneliness or even suicide is an absolute taboo which means people don’t get the help they need. 

• Even more so, people don’t understand why they feel the agony which translates in confusion and perpetual difficulties. 

• People are inherently drawn to imagery for story telling rather than words and this platform we can use art to show these stories and engage people in exercises that helps them express their own feelings and thoughts.

• Another way that art can compliment each other is through therapeutic ways which is often used in therapies in treatment.

Who are the featured artists and how are there artwork relevant?

• In the Durban version of the exhibition we featured the late Thabiso Sekgala a photographic artists from Johannesburg, Lindokuhle Sobekwa, another photographic artist from Johannesburg, works by Witness Change a non-profit that captures visual story-telling often focused on human rights abuses. We also included works provided by the Denis Hurley centre for the Homeless and facilitated two workshops called “PhotoVoice”. One with young people for a Centre for Refugees and some clients of the Denis Hurley Centre that does not have homes, living on the street. Each of these artists and stories are relevant as they highlight different social and environment factors that impacts the health of our minds. The works by Thabiso Sekgala was of particular interest for me, and one of the main reasons I wanted to start this project. But another body of work by Witness Change was incredibly important as it vocalised the stories of the survivors and loved ones of those lost in the tragic Life Esidimeni saga where a 150 psychiatric patients died due to starvation, dehydration and hypothermia. It is a grave human rights violation that to this day have not held anyone accountable and once again disregards people with mental illness as being lesser humans.

What are some of the blind spots when it comes to mental health and how does this project engage them?

• I think the blindspots are the ones that we don’t often connect to mental health. There is a general understanding or perception that mental health and mental illness is only reserved for those who have a “brain defect” when in actual fact, every single person on this planet are susceptible to mental agony, is some form or another. There is a plethora of elements that impacts peoples minds in different ways and no one person’s experience is the same. It is a very complex map of factors that creates the way you feel, act and view the world.

• This project engages some of those often muted voices of vulnerable communities, those who live in the shadows of societies because it is not easy to digest and hard for people to see. It explores the environmental challenges of inidividuals and communities, like being homeless for instance – a basic human need for shelter in order to feel safe which reduces stress and anxiety. Alcohol and substance abuse in poverty stricken environments when people are susceptible to peer pressure but also don’t have a space or feel like they have a contribution to society because they are unemployed or want to escape from violence, even if it is momentarily. 

The creative sector is synonymous with artists taking their own lives since the time of Vincent Van Gogh to more recently Thabiso Sekgala the artist in the project.

• I want to just give two points as precursors on this question: 1. I have permission from Thabiso’s ex partner to speak about him publicly and 2. The topics around suicide is incredible complex and difficult and if at any stage anyone needs support, there are helplines to contact like the South African Depression and Anxiety Group on 0800 234 5678, please don’t be silent, speak up!

• Regarding the creative sector, you are right, there are themes that is synonymous to mental agony that underlines reasons for artists who take their own lives. Depression is often found a source of creative power and taping into a dark space allows some artists to create their best work. What I do need to add is that when it comes to suicide, it does not necessarily mean that someone struggled with depression prior to them taking their lives. Some take their lives in a momentary feeling of desperate or hopelessness. Some take their lives as they think they will relieve other’s peoples struggles.

• But what is prominent is that men have a great tendency to plan their taking their own lives more so than women. 

• So while we are able to trace some of the elements that we think might’ve impacted their decision to take their own lives, the reality is we will never really understand or know the true reasons.

What do you see as the underlaying issues or courses? 
• There is a young artist called Tabitha Rezaire who created a body of work that explored and exploited the traumatic experiences that black woman endured when they were used as experimental bodies for gynaecology, back when the science of gynaecology was being developed. They were used as ‘lab rats’ and brutally abused to get the what doctors needed to further their knowledge of gynaecology, which ironically only these doctors were hailed as the heroes of medicine, with not regard to the women who endured this trauma. Tabitha went to great lengths to find evidence going back hundreds of years to inform this body of work and it is a really engaging, thought-provoking piece and a powerful edition to art and social conversation.

• Another artists I deeply respect is Clive van den Berg – he created a beautiful and equally powerful body of work that explored the time when he came out as a gay man during a time that was very hero-normative and religiously unacceptable in South Africa. His work, made of exquisites drawings and water-colours exposes his deepest feelings of shame, guilt and vulnerability and how this manifested when he met his (now) husband. 

• And there are hundreds and thousands more artists that creates equally powerful work like both of them do. 

How can Empathy & Hope assist in the plight against mental health in the workplace, at home at school etc?

• I believe so. Our society enables those who creates division and there is not enough emphasis in our leaders and communities to that each other in an empathetic way. Hope and Empathy are both concepts that can be taught and people aren’t necessarily born with these traits. A big focus of my work as a Mental Health Advocate and Programme Manager is focused on youth which includes schools and university students. There are scientific studies that prove people become more hopeful if they are given the tools and promoting good mental wellbeing is the corner stone of being and feeling hopeful. If you re mentally healthy your will feel hopeful about the future. Treating people with empathy, being able to relate to their situation and background can be the difference in how you are received by others, whether it is at the work place, at home or at school.

How do you know if someone is suffering from mental health, are there any signs to look out for?

• There are a number of signs to look out for, particularly when dealing with depression. Mental illness is not a homogenous term, every illness has its own signs to look out for. But depression is the most common.

• Depression can be picked by being continue of someones behaviour. If their behaviour changes drastically in a way that is noticeable – it could be that some becomes more socially withdrawn, they sleep more than usual, they don’t eat at all or they eat more than usual, they’re schools marks drop, they get physically illness more often. Also notice the things someone say, like referring more to feelings of hopelessness, like how they don’t enjoy the things they used to, and a big red flag is when they speak about killing themselves.

• There are more information online and supportive resources that can guide you to be assisted. It is always advisable to consult a mental health professional when you do pick up any of these signs.

What role can visual art play in aid of those suffering from mental health issues?:

• Discussion hosted by a prominent presenter on a prominent radio station explore whether art is still revenant today, and during a pandemic

• I would argue that art is even more relevant during these times – whether it gives you something visually soothing like a beautiful drawing of nature or whether it engages you in important social issues in a way that politicians and citizens can’t express

• Art gives people the ability to be expressive, to voice things visually, in a way that words can never convey

• The ability to relieve mental agony and to connect to others who shares the same

• A way to be part of a community and to feel like something can be created, which is a feeling of empowerment

• Song, dance, drama, these are based on historical rituals and traditions that invigorates people and creates a very unique connection to your body, the earth and the ability to tell a story through movement. All powerful stuff that promotes a relief of our daily struggles and transports you into another world.