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Art And Storytelling: An Undermined Tool In Understanding Mental Health

By: Arnay Walia and Sofia Cojocea

Since the beginning of time, humanity has told stories. Cavemen have drawn sprawling paintings of their hunting escapades on their walls. Native Americans gathered around fires and sang tall tales of mythical creatures and constellations. The Greeks built amphitheaters to tell their stories in exaggerated masks and elaborate costumes. Hollywood made cinematic films to translate their stories to the big screen. Stories, and the desire to share them, has been ingrained in human nature since the beginning of our existence, and is a crucial part of our mental health.

Stories are told through art. Many artists use words to tell stories, but others use paint or instruments or fabric. Art itself is a story, not a technique. Few casual viewers compliment Leonardo Da Vinci’s technical abilities, rather focusing on the story that the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile tells. Audiences are impressed by Adele’s voice, but what draws them in is the hurt in her voice as she tells her story of heartbreak. Even if they do not relate to the lyrics she sings, everyone has felt the hurt in her voice at one point in their lives. Art resonates with audiences because although the story may not relate to every viewer, they relate to the emotion of the artist. By seeing or hearing or reading about the emotion, the viewer feels comforted. They are able to understand the mental state of the artist and acknowledge their own mental state.

Art is a powerful tool for coping with mental health, whether by consuming it or creating it. Art allows its viewer to feel comforted and its creator to express their mental state, which is incredibly important towards the betterment of mental health. Societal stigma against the expression of negative emotions may appear harmless, but it leads to decreased attempts to get help for mental health disorders. According to the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, less than 40% of people with mental illnesses and disorders get help. Although there are many plausible reasons as to why, the U.S. Surgeon General and the World Health Organization state that stigma is the main barrier to mentally ill people seeking and/or receiving successful treatment for their disorders. Stigma is defined as a negative societal assumption based on a particular circumstance, and is unfortunately extremely common in regards to negative emotions and symptoms of mental health disorders. It is beyond difficult to discuss negative emotions with others. Although we have made incredible progress with treatment for mental illness and representation, the more negative aspects of mental illness are ignored. A lack of hygiene or messy rooms, which are common symptoms for depression, elicit reactions of disgust instead of concern. Lack of motivation is perceived as lazy instead of a warning sign. Discussions about mental health are discouraged.

Stigma around mental health has serious consequences. This leads to people with suffering mental health isolating themselves and turning away from help. Lack of identity and feelings of decreased self esteem are common problems that many adolescents face. However, these problems are brushed off constantly. Of course, the ideal solution to this would be to remove all stigma around mental health, so discussing these subjects would be easier and victims could get the help they need. However, this is not a realistic solution. Those with suffering mental health need an outlet with which to discuss these topics outside of the societal stigma surrounding mental health struggles. That’s where art as a form of communication becomes a far more appealing subject.

Art is a reflection of the artist, a version of its creator reflected onto a canvas. Communication is a transfer of information, and whether through music or a paintbrush, art is a transfer of information, with the information being the creator's thoughts and mental state. Not only does art allow the subject to express their emotions; art forces the artist to view the emotions they spew, to process them and arrange them artistically. It increases dopamine and is linked to lowered anxiety and improved memory. Truly, art is a tool for viewers to understand their own emotions as well as the emotions of the creator. To make art, an artist must look into a mirror, and face what they see, head on.


Ahmedani, Brian K. “Mental Health Stigma: Society, Individuals, and the Profession.” Journal of social work values and ethics vol. 8,2 (2011): 41-416.

World Health Organization [WHO] Investing in mental health. Geneva, Switzerland: WHO; 2003. [Google Scholar]

U.S. Surgeon General. Rockville, Maryland: Center of Mental Health Services, National Institute of Mental Health; 1999. Mental health: A report of the U.S. Surgeon General. [ Google Scholar]

Da Vinci, L. (1503-1519). Mona Lisa [Painting]. Retrieved from

“Dispelling the Myths: How to Talk about Mental Health and What You Can Do to Cure Stigma.” Franciscan Children's,

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