Two Paths by John Keane

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and as you may have guessed, it’s that time of year when you see numerous testimonials from people living with or who’ve suffered through the pangs of mental illness. Some of these testimonials come from celebrities. Some come from the successful elite of our collective culture. And some come from “Average Joes.”

Throughout the month of May, all across social media platforms we hear declarations of how being psychologically unwell should not carry a stigma or fear of retaliation. We share links, screencaps, blog posts and phone numbers to hotlines related to every characteristic that might invite ridicule or shame. Although the message continues all year long, May has become the month where it’s deemed OK to shout “I’ve been mentally unwell and there’s no shame in that!”

And yet, as we can see when the sun rises on a new day, the stigma remains, the fear persists and the suicides continue.

I dare say it continues because we — the social we, the creative we, the global we — speak with a forked tongue.

Allow me to explain.

Mental health is an especially tricky subject to navigate in the artistic community. We see those who’ve chosen to make their bread and butter in the world of the arts battle through one hardship after another while dragging around the erroneous albatross: “misery breeds creativity.”

We hate it. We know on a visceral level it can’t possibly be true. And yet, that albatross is reflected in our media, our peers and our lives every day. We figure if we’re going to be miserable, broke and rejected, we might as well channel it into our work. But it is often our work that has led us down this path to feeling miserable, broke and rejected. Like the famed ouroboros, we start to see a quiet dignity lies in plowing the depths of our psychological state and allowing it to feed our creative projects and performances.

The pressure to succeedBut we have to pause and ask ourselves, “Are we truly as talented as we say we are if we can only produce our art in a state of psychological discontent?” In admiring great artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway or Pyotr Tchaikovsky, are we “romanticizing mental illness” and perpetuating the myth that misery does indeed breed exceptional creativity?

Or perhaps, as artists, are we simply acknowledging that our frail psychological health is not unique at all? And somehow, by embracing it, we are coping by creating?

Artists are seen as a maudlin and moody bunch, but they’re far from alone in this constant battle for mental wellness. If there’s any community that is afforded some freedom to expose the state of their mental health with less stigma than say, a white-collar 9-to-5er, it’s the artist. But at what point are we willing to acknowledge that awareness isn’t bringing acceptance? And it certainly isn’t bringing wellness!

One only has to look at the world of artists and creative professionals to see that despite the expectation that psychological instability is par for the course, mental health awareness alone isn’t making anyone’s lives better.

This could be because there are some artists who are more than happy to keep the myth of “misery breeds creativity” alive, and therefore engage in a cycle of unending emotional harm. It also could be because mental wellness is a journey that can take years to realize and complete. And it also could be a simple matter of mental health awareness is not intended to resolve mental illness at all.

An awareness month sounds like a brilliant idea, and erasing the stigma of psychological illness is a bandwagon I’m happy to join. But we — the social we, the creative we, the global we — have to address the fact that awareness isn’t a resolution. “Fight the stigma” has become the phrase we utter when we’re in public, while we keep the fear of retaliation alive in private. Or worse, in the workplace, online, and at school.

Artists know all too well that the awareness of mental illness doesn’t save you from the dogged pursuit of public ridicule or the cycle of cerebral gymnastics that leave you wishing tomorrow will never come. One could say that we are to blame for our own derision, but the truth is the tradition of treating the psychologically unstable as a source of amusement predates any world-renown artist we revere today.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that mental health awareness can’t be the only response in the pursuit of mental wellness. It’s true we can’t cure a disorder we don’t acknowledge, but we also can’t cure a disorder we don’t accept as curable. This month can’t continue to be a time of grandstanding devoid of solutions. We need real talk about how to address the disorders and the treatment options that take us beyond the label and pride.

This battle is both personal and political, for all of us. And artists are no strangers to melding the two. And ultimately, I think the answer on how to move beyond simple awareness may lie within the creative community itself.

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