NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Devils and Angels

Mental health is a major issue and one that suffers in parts from being a relatively hidden disease, even though mental health affects one in four of us in our lifetime … This issue is timely in many ways in the midst of a COVID pandemic, but timeless in its effects on our global communities and the wellbeing of our citizens.

By Professor Clive Barstow

Welcome to the thirty-fifth edition of NiTRO where we look at the prevailing issues around mental health and how the arts make a major contribution to the discussion and to the process of healing. This issue is co-edited by Professor Jane Davidson, Head of Performing Arts, Faculty of Fine Arts and Music and Chair of Creativity and Wellbeing Hallmark Initiative at the University of Melbourne, and an executive member of the DDCA.

This issue is timely in many ways in the midst of a COVID pandemic, but timeless in its effects on our global communities and the wellbeing of our citizens. Mental health is a major issue and one that suffers in parts from being a relatively hidden disease, even though mental health affects one in four of us in our lifetime. Naomi Osaka’s recent withdrawal from the French open only highlighted our institutional attitudes to this form of disease with the authorities fining her for avoiding the very thing that feeds her anxiety. Would they have done the same for a leg strain or a severe attack of tennis elbow? I think not.  It is worth noting however that we have come a long way since the 15th century where her fate might have been to be burned at the stake, but clearly, we still have a long way to go.

Anxiety and depression are among the most common and pervasive mental health difficulties. The heavy social and emotional toll of COVID-19 has seen an escalation of mental health problems due to risk factors such as stress, insecurity, uncertainty, isolation, and loneliness, to name but a few[1]. On the other side of the coin we see a  growing resilience and empathy that makes us proud to be human in our care for each other, something we will rely on in a long and drawn out post pandemic recovery.

In my own institution this week we are hosting and exhibition and conference on mental health and the arts, entitled The Dark Side, curated by Professor Ted Snell. This exhibition is part of a larger project: Frame of Mind: Mental Health and the Arts, a collaboration between The National Art School in Sydney and Edith Cowan University in Perth. It emphasises the fact that artists have never shied away from revealing the darker side of the human condition and often as a condition they suffer themselves, acknowledged by many as a driver for their creative practice.

Our humanity has been inestimably enriched by artists who courageously and wholeheartedly invest in giving artistic expression to their emotional experience and inner psyche[2]. As the poet W.H. Auden famously remarked:

“Don’t take my devils away because my angels might flee too”

I hope you enjoy this timely edition of NiTRO

[1] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (July 2020) https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-health/mental-health

[2] Joanne Dickson. The Dark Side: Mental Health and the Arts ECU Perth (June 2021)

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