By Eileen Siddins
In the past few years, published reports have indicated concerning trends in creative artist mental health. For example, five Australian entertainment industry workers attempt death by suicide every week,  with those in the entertainment industry experiencing depression symptoms five times higher  than the general population (Eynde, Fisher & Sonn, 2016).
These concerning reports are not limited to just the entertainment sector. A recent study  (Tank, 2018) indicates that creative media and marketing workers also experience mental health problems as a result of bullying, sexual harassment, racism, working long hours and fear  in the workplace. Given that not only is the health of our industry at stake, but also the lives of our creative workers, it is vital that the mental health and wellbeing of artists be seriously addressed in policy.
What has been done for creative artists in reflecting this expansion of mental health research? Recently, various initiatives like Arts Wellbeing Collective  and Never Not Creative  have established a sense of community support and provided various resources to improve mental health in the creative workforce. In terms of policy, the Never Not Creative community emphasises in their Creative’s Pledge  that employers have a mental health policy and procedures for actively protecting their creative workers. This community also provides a Mental Health Policy  to be used by the public as a template that provides ways to “fight for a more positive and accepted future for mental health”  (Wright, 2018) within the creative workforce.
These two initiatives are new and have the potential to greatly influence our creative industries. However, I believe – and would like to think that the founders of these initiatives agree – that more can be done to prevent and protect the mental health of artists before they enter the workforce. This requires further participation from the institutions who train a majority of emerging artists through higher education. Universities, in particular, can play a key role in educating their art students about mental health and wellbeing. However, there is still much that can be done to address the mental health of all students in Australian higher education policy. A recent report  (Orygen, 2017) described Australia as an international leader in youth mental health, but lacking in regard to student wellbeing in higher education policy.
Higher education policy can draw attention to ways that we not only respond to, but also prevent mental health problems. Policy can also provide a space for specifically addressing the unique experiences of people training in different fields like the creative arts. Art students in university can benefit from intervention that helps them learn how to understand, protect and enhance their wellbeing. For example, enhanced wellbeing can help students’ increase creative thinking  (Lambert, Passmore & Holder, 2015), improve their resilience and ensure they have the tools necessary to manage challenges they experience in the workforce. Successful and sustainable intervention, however, requires sensitivity to the unique language and practice of artists, as well as an in-depth understanding of their training environment.
Effective and sustainable intervention requires accurate evidence-based recommendations that identify art students’ wellbeing needs. This is why I am currently collecting art student’s opinions on their mental health and wellbeing, through the Visual Arts Wellbeing  (VAW) research project. VAW focuses on representing the opinions of art students who are studying visual art disciplines.  My objective for this research is to provide an evidence-based list of recommendations that assists higher educators in redesigning art curriculum. This may lay the foundation for future change in art education policy.
It is crucial that any steps forward with transforming the policy and educational structure of artist training are based on the voice of the students themselves. After all, they understand their environment, their experiences, and their wellbeing intimately. Hence, it is important to gather their opinions on how their art education impacts their wellbeing and how curriculum could be changed to enhance it. I am currently collecting data from students through an online survey  and interviews and I will continue to do so until December 2018.
Please help me spread the word
If you know Australian undergraduate students who study: fashion and textile arts; ceramics and sculpture; print, painting and drawing; animation and digital illustration; interactive design (UX/UI) or graphic design, please feel free to share the below information with them:
Animation about the research (https://youtu.be/a_BaLBelvmk)
Filmed invitation to participate in survey (https://youtu.be/M9WBq4UDiEY)
Online survey (https://jcuchs.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_bDuZlAljYf1bhl3)
Art students can volunteer to be interviewed by Eileen. For more information contact Eileen: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eynde, J., Fisher, A., & Sonn, C. (2016). Working in the Australian Entertainment Industry: Final Report Retrieved from Entertainment Assist: www.entertainmentassist.org.au/our-research
Lambert, L., Passmore, H.-A., & Holder, M. D. (2015). Foundational frameworks of positive psychology: Mapping well-being orientations. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 56(3), 311-321. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cap0000033
Orygen Foundation. (2017). Under the radar: The mental health of Australian university students. Retrieved from Melbourne: www.orygen.org.au/Policy-Advocacy/Policy-Reports/Under-the-radar/orygen-Under_the_radar_summary.aspx?ext=
Tank. (2018). 2018 Mental Health & Creative Industry Snapshot. Retrieved from http://wearetank.com.au/creative-leadership/mental-health-snapshot?fbclid=IwAR0_55mL41_TsccNiNLhoWa4gwU-oqVtL21azqRPLbAGFV-IWZLg-Ryv7tI
Wright, A. (2018). Mentally Healthy. Retrieved from https://medium.com/never-not-creative/mentallyhealthy/home
Eileen Siddins is a PhD candidate and research assistant at James Cook University. Eileen has interests in changing university art curriculum to benefit art students’ wellbeing and resilience. Her research is published by the International Journal of Innovation, Creativity and Change, Journal of Arts & Humanities and the Australian Council of Arts & Design Schools. You can find more information about her research at www.wellartist.org.