Mental Health Awareness Day/ Week

Today is mental health awareness day world wide.And it's Mental Health awareness week. So I thought I would share some of my personal experience.

If you'd asked me a couple of years ago what I thought of mental Illness I'd probably have told you about movies such as Girl Interrupted or  Black Swan where people were mentally unwell. It seemed something people out there had and didn't concern me much.

What I hadn't realised was that mental illness can happen to anybody at anytime, and affects one in five New Zealanders (New Zealand Ministry of Health 2011). Mental Illness "has no prejudice .You can be rich or poor, unemployed or in charge of a company, black or white, male or female - it doesn't matter. Its not an indication of personal weakness its an illness and it can strike anyone" - John Kirwan.

Once I became unwell it took me awhile to realise that I wasn't crazy, there was help, and other people felt this way too.It was a dark and scary place and I felt very alone. 
I came across a work by an artist called Matuscka called ‘beauty out of damage’, in which she photographed herself after having breast cancer, I found this work inspiring, as she had unashamedly embraced what others consider imperfections and would wish to hide.
I loved this concept and decided to make some of my own work around it.

Matuschka's 1993 Self Portrait

Matuschka's 1993 Self Portrait

From there I began to photograph myself. I was very unwell and for awhile my main task of the day was just to take a self portrait. It was terrifying to talk about let alone show people photos of me at my worst.

But I was challenged by american artist Dan Estabrook, who spoke of the responsibility of an artist to make work that is "emotionally honest".  "The role of an artist is to bare their soul to the world, to show a personal point of view and challenge the viewer to consider something in different light, making art a powerful and compelling practice."

 I continued to photograph, and called my project Compost - You can grow flowers from where dirt used to be, ( and then retitled it, Compost: An exploration of vulnerability and hope). I wanted my subject and technology to come together to communicate this concept of ‘beauty out of damage’.  So I worked through a process that spoils the photograph to create a more human image.  The most successful of these being the photocopy transfers; Photocopy transfers, still involved damage, as you need to rub very hard at the image you are transferring.  This gives them a kind of haptic communication, a human-esque quality, that makes them look delicate and beautiful – this was my intention.

Doing this project inspired me to contemplate the idea that our weaknesses can become our celebrated strengths. Typically, people chose not to talk about their imperfections and hide them. The world might be a different place if imperfections were exposed and celebrated as what makes people unique and human. In these flaws and the stories they tell; through “excruciating vulnerability” and honesty; there is beauty.

I discovered a lot about myself, art, mental illness and self acceptance. I wanted to give the same opportunity to others, to rise above their circumstances and tell their story. And become part of a bigger story of public awareness of mental illness. So I then began to photograph others. Last year I held an exhibition in association with the Mental Health Foundation for Mental Health awareness week where I displayed both sets of work, and this year some of those photos have won awards.

It is deeply personal but also profoundly public, challenging a social taboo and bringing it into the light. I want to raise awareness of this plague that seeks to be hidden. My aim is to encourage, inform, and inspire. The work I have done so far feels like a stepping stone, and I intend to continue this kind of work in the future.

If you or anyone you know suffers from mental illness, I would love to encourage you not to suffer in silence. You don’t have to do everything on your own and asking for help certainly does not make you weak.

I also feel that recovery is journey that takes time and commitment to getting better.
I could not have gotten where I am now without encouragement, prayer and support from family, friends, tutors and colleagues, flatmates, doctors, counsellors, medication, regular exercise, change in diet and lifestyle, and a purposeful change in how I speak about myself and my situation, and a desire to get better so I could one day help others who find themselves feeling this way.

- Michelle

 Links:

Poster from exhibition showing both works

Photocopy transfer.This picture won a bronze award at the Iris awards

Photocopy transfer.This picture won a bronze award at the Iris awards

Photocopy transfer. This image won a Silver award at the Iris awards