May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and we’d like to share with you a piece on artists who struggle with anxiety and depression while addressing mental health as a whole. By presenting these viewpoints, we hope to reduce the stigma surrounding these extremely common disorders. To borrow words from our friend Effie Morway, “Mental health disorders do not mean you are weak, stupid, crazy, or any other negative adjectives. They simply are a part of you, like any other physical condition or disease. 1 in 5 people suffer from a mental health condition, so you are not alone if you do.”
We were able to interview Anthony Codispoti, a photographer/filmmaker, Jordan Fehr, a sound designer/actor, and Amandda Tirey, a painter. Their answers were never truly the same - anxiety affects everyone in different ways, but the connecting threads among the responses were that anxiety functions as a part of who they are as artists and it adds strength to their everyday lives.
When asked about how mental illness affects their creativity, each artist stated that the creative process was never the origin of their illness, but rather, their disorders generated difficulties when completing and presenting their work.
Fehr states, “But what it [anxiety] does do is take me out of the world and make me unable to then do my job when I have a bad episode.” While a bad episode for Fehr inhibits him from completing tasks, these episodes provide a piece of mind to help him work with artists who share the diagnosis, but present different symptoms. “Everyone has their own particular brand of terrible when it comes to anxiety/panic/depression, but that being said, it is a whole new side of the human condition that I didn't understand at all, so I am better able to empathize with other sufferers, and it is never a bad thing for an actor to have more knowledge.”
In terms of external factors, Codispoti says, “I’m often working on sets with actors, models, or clients - this is when my anxiety can really take its effect. I always have a very clear vision and direction with my art, and if I'm feeling anxious while shooting or directing, it shows in the final product.”
Tirey also struggles with the anxiety that surrounds casting the light on her art and herself, “It never gets in my way of making the art...just presenting and talking about it or myself as an artist to other people in large groups. The spotlight really makes me anxious the older I get! I'd love for my art and name to be known worldwide but my person to be anonymous.”
It’s not always easy to be open and honest about mental disorders, especially because in society, those who struggle with mental disorders are often labeled as “other.” Negative labels like these could potentially prevent those who suffer from opening up about their illnesses, making them feel like they are broken and alone. However, the artists agree that sharing their experiences and talking about mental health is crucial to improving how we, as a society, discuss and treat mental disorders.
By opening up, Tirey says that others will not feel isolated. “I believe it’s quite common with artists. You are showing the world your soul, and sometimes people can be cruel. It’s just hard to take when you are baring it all.”
To Codispoti, opening up reduces the stigma on anxiety: “It'd make it less of the 'monster under the bed'. All kinds of people have and live with it every day. It doesn't need to be a big deal. We shouldn't let it become one.” On that note, Fehr adds, “People with anxiety and depression don't want to ask for help. The more people know about it, the more warning signs you can see in others, the more empathetic you can be even if you haven't experienced it yourself, and if the actual person suffering is more open to talking about it and asking for help, they will do better.”
Misconceptions play a huge role in how we talk about mental illness. Stereotypes and false information about mental disorders are frequently used in many discourses: “People throw around words like 'depression' and 'anxiety' to mean sadness and uneasiness all the time. But they don't realize that there are those of us for whom those words are actually a diagnosis. I was in the hospital and a doctor diagnosed me as having clinical anxiety and depression. Depression doesn't mean sadness to me. It is a crushing inability to enjoy anything. It is the absence of happiness. There is a HUGE difference between that and feeling sad,” Fehr says. Tirey adds, “Many people who don't have it will never understand it…a friend said to me recently- "I don't understand - you are so fun and carefree and relaxed until you have to speak in front of people - what happens?”
Earlier, it was discussed that an honest discussion about mental health is difficult, and this could partly lead to these misconceptions. Codispoti says, “I'd say people with anxiety don't like bringing attention to their anxiety. No one wants that to become a label. For that reason, it's not something that's focused on in the main stream, even when I'm sure there are plenty of influential people that struggle with it.”
Fehr also touches upon another problem plaguing open discussion: ignorance. “The other part of society's views on anxiety is that it in some way involves weakness. I have heard an adage that goes something like ‘crying isn't a sign of weakness, it is a sign that someone has been strong for too long’. You can't just chin up and get over serious clinical illness. People need different combinations of support systems, doctors, medication, and education. So telling someone to get over it, or man-up, or stop being sad or any of the litany of other things people say all come from a ignorance of what some people are really going through.”
There are many ways that people who suffer with mental illness learn to cope and live normal lives, despite what is going on in their brain. Some of these coping mechanisms are learned individually, in therapy, or from friends and family. On advice for others struggling with anxiety, Codispoti says “Listen to music, read a book, watch a movie, or go on a hike. Or maybe on the really intense days go on a hike to read a book while you listen to music. Focus on the things you love to do. Sometimes I need a few days to myself, away from people. That's not something everyone may always understand, but that's okay. You have to take care of yourself first, and only you can figure out how to do that. Especially in the times you have a lot going on.”
Fehr’s advice is more indirect and self-reflective: “I thought I was trying all the avenues available to me to controlling and coping with what was happening to me. But it turns out I wasn't. The stuff I was afraid to even consider making changes around were the things that had to do with my self-identity. For example, I have been working at home, alone, running my own business as a freelance sound designer for the better part of 8 years. I was afraid, deeply afraid of making any changes to something that I had worked nearly my entire adult life to build. It felt like failure. But what I have learned is that it is not black and white, nothing is 100% this or 100% that the more you engage with anxiety, the worse it can become. You have to reshape your thinking, distract it, or control it.”
Through their words, these artists are breaking the silence about mental health - what it means to them, what they want to see done about the stigmas, and the relief that comes from learning they are not alone. This discourse is generating a foundation for mental health awareness, and will hopefully be built upon in the days, months, and years to come.