In June of 2014, WISE convened a group of organizational partners, artists, and other community stakeholders to discuss art, mental health stigma, and how we see the arts playing a role in stigma reduction. The learning from that and several subsequent discussions has informed our approach to stigma reduction work in the arts, both in terms of best practices, and cultural relevancy to the arts community.

What is Your Purpose? What is the Change You’d Like to See?

First, ask yourself, what is your purpose in using the arts for stigma reduction? Is it simply to raise awareness? To give a platform to artists who have experienced mental illness? Or are you really focused on a specific change you’d like to see? If your goal, or one of your goals in putting on the event is to reduce stigma, there are some things you may want to think about.

We invite you to consider the following learning outcomes from our discussions about using arts for stigma reduction, as well as from the practical experience of WISE and its partner organizations in putting on stigma-reducing arts events.

  1. Personal Story and contact is the main thing we know to reduce stigma. But story can be utilized in a variety of ways.
  2. We don’t want to limit creative expression, or try to narrowly define what ‘stigma reducing art’ looks like. If 10 people are looking at the same piece of art, they may all interpret it differently.
  3. Art in itself is a form of therapy for people. The story may be about that.
  4. Some art may express darkness, and may have allowed a catharsis of sorts for the artist. Perhaps the experience of creating the art was part of a recovery process—if there is a story with it, then the story about its creation may perhaps have the opportunity to illuminate recovery.
  5. Ultimately, we want to leave it up to the artists to decide for themselves. Do they want to share a story of recovery? Or do they want to let the work stand on its own?
  6. When thinking of aesthetics in the art world, there is no “right” or “wrong” way of expression.
  7. Creating the art is often healing, but the experience of consuming it may be different.
  8. Recovery is not linear. Art may show that.

Putting on Events

First, do some research about groups that may already be doing this kind of work in your community. Work together! Make connections, and find out who might be able to help you get necessary resources, such as easels for display. If a gallery or venue normally charges a fee to rent, and you cannot afford it, let them know your cause. They may be willing to work with you. Ask other people who have done work like this what their calls for submissions have looked like. You may be able to get a template. Other things that will be important to consider are liability issues. You’ll want artists to sign a waiver form that you have permission to use their artwork and display their story, and keep this on file.

Consider bringing many different people and organizations together to work on things together. Not only will you reach more people, but you will make things much easier on yourself. Plan ahead, and send out press releases. You want to share these stories of recovery with as many people as possible!