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The Power of Art and Awareness - by Christian Anderson

  • Page ID
    187932
    • Christian Anderson at Pima Community College

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    Suicide is a national crisis. As the CDC states “Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States,3 with 45,979 deaths in 2020” (Center of Disease Control and Prevention). This is something that we cannot afford to ignore. The plight of those who struggle with their mental health is too important a topic to overlook. With thousands of deaths to account for in the United States alone, it is only natural that we should strongly desire to help alleviate this crisis in some way. There is no denying that something must be done to counteract this rising epidemic. So, the question remains, what can be done?

    We could help those who are struggling with their mental health on a case-by-case basis, connecting them to professional resources or providing them with one-on-one support. It can be helpful to connect individuals with therapists and counselors through resources like the federally funded Suicide Prevention Resource Center website (www.sprc.org), and individuals that may be facing internal mental struggles would benefit greatly from this professional help (Suicide Prevention Resource Center). However, despite the importance of this method, it is impossible for a single individual to help everyone, especially those who are outside of their direct sphere of influence. In addition, we can only reach out to the people we know are struggling, potentially missing out on those who show no outward signs of their internal battle.

    That is where awareness programs and community-wide organizations, such as Tucson Student Ministries (TSM), come into play. One of the most effective methods in suicide prevention is combatting the stigma around mental health through education and awareness programs. As Asha Worsterling and Byron Keating, researchers for the Queensland University of Technology, have observed, “improving attitudes towards suicide and increasing awareness of mental illness should be one of the first steps to engaging the community in preventing suicide” (Worsterling and Keating). Getting the message out into the world is a huge part of the battle in fighting any mental health crisis. The resources that we develop can only help our society if we manage to get them in the hands of the people who need them, and we may not be able to do that on our own. We need larger groups to help us reach more people. By this logic, developing comprehensive mental health awareness programs is crucial to helping us counteract the rising suicide crisis that we are currently facing.

    It is also important to create a wide array of awareness programs because there is no single approach that covers all aspects of society or all states of mental health. Important matters are rarely simple, and no perfect program exists for addressing all the potential points in a single clean sweep. Looking at different aspects of the community and tailoring different programs and organizations to address their individual needs is a crucial step for building awareness. I want to explore this idea by taking a closer look at one such organization in our local community, how it fills a specific mental health awareness niche in Tucson, and how it relates to the larger whole of such programs in society.

    Tucson Student Ministries (TSM) is a local nonprofit organization devoted to promoting mental health awareness in the community by using art as a communication vessel. Their specific focus is on the performing arts, including video, dance, music, and live performance theater. This approach is relatively unique, specifically appealing to the artistic community of Tucson and filling a distinctive niche in that demographic. It stands to reason that artists struggling with their mental health would receive messages better if they were conveyed through their chosen means of expression. Essentially, art relates to artists, and in that spirit, Erin Anderson founded TSM in 2021, tailoring her approach to members of the artistic community. A University of Arizona graduate with a degree in psychology and theater, Erin desired to create an organization where her passion for art and the need for mental health awareness in the community intersected (Anderson).

    Evidence supports the effectiveness of this artistic approach with the right kind of demographic. For instance, opera singer and art-therapy advocate Awet Andemicael states that,

    Although artistic activity cannot substitute for psychiatric therapy and care, participating in such activity – whether private or public, formal or informal – can help provide a means to express both painful and pleasant emotions, to confront difficult memories and sometimes to find an escape from burdens. (Andemicael)

    This is an incredibly important and foundational principle for TSM’s existence, and one of TSM’s core ideals. After all, Erin was especially impacted by the idea of using art as a coping mechanism, receiving relief for her own trauma through artistic expression (Anderson). In this way, Erin was able to take something that had helped her cope in the past and turn it into a force to help the people around her, using her passion for artistic expression as a tool to assist her community.

    While there may be other more effective approaches to awareness, the arts specifically deal with mental health on a personal and collective level. In a study for The UN Refugee Agency, Awet Andemicael emphasizes this point directly saying, “Moreover, artistic activity addresses psychosocial wellness not only in ways that can treat each individual not only as an individual but also as an integral participant in a larger cultural context” (Andemicael). Art can help an individual relate to the world around them and connect with groups that share similar interests to their own. Art deals with the inspirational and motivational aspects of mental health awareness, helping individuals rediscover how they relate to their own community. It is a perspective that can be invaluable in the hands of the right individual.

    In addition, TSM endeavors to create a comprehensive approach, employing as many artistic methods as possible, because covering multiple mediums is more effective than focusing on a single mode of delivery. As a study led by Mathur Shivani Gaiha for BMC Psychiatry states, “Interventions that employ multiple art forms together compared to studies employing film, theatre or role play are likely more effective in reducing mental-health-related stigma” (Gaiha, et al.). This is mirrored in TSM’s approach to coupling music with visuals, dancing with acting, and design with performance. The more tools that TSM has at their disposal, the more subjects they can cover with them. TSM wants to create art using a variety of mediums at same time, creating a more holistic experience, and impacting a wider range of emotions in the viewer.

    Erin, the acting director of TSM and current member of the board, says that TSM prefers letting young adults and teenagers perform in their art because of the special connection it creates with the target audience of youth in Tucson. Seeing performers in their demographic helps the audience relate to the message on a more personal level. Erin says they were influenced in this decision by the Social Norm Theory (Anderson). One study for the Journal of Family Violence summarizes the Social Norm theory with the following sequence of events,

    Norms influence behavior yet norms are often misperceived (over or under estimated); Misperceptions lead people to conform to a false norm (attitudes and behaviors are adjusted to conform to what is incorrectly perceived to be true); Correcting misperceptions allows individuals to act in accordance with their actual beliefs, which are most often positive. (Rogers, et al.)

    This theory led Erin to construct an awareness organization where correcting misperceptions about teenage social norms through the positive action of peers was crucial. She believes that giving students a picture of the constructive actions they can take is better than condemning them for what they might do wrong (Anderson). To this day, TSM crafts their art through the lens of a positive behavior to emulate, rather than the negative narrative espoused by mainstream media.

    Of course, TSM cannot cover everything, and although their methods may prove successful for certain demographics, they may not be as effective in other situations. As a study led by Urszula Tymoszuk for the Royal College of Music in London states, “We conclude that arts engagement in the population forms specific profiles with distinct characteristics and that arts engagement is positively associated with better social wellbeing in most but not all cases” (Tymoszuk, et al.). Art only works for the specific people who are receptive to that style of communication, and although it is certainly a helpful method, it may not be for everyone. Even Erin herself admits this saying,

    We also know that not all students will connect through the arts, and that just seeing a piece of art typically doesn’t just change someone’s life. Our goal is to start that conversation. To break that stigma. To show that we are a loving and caring organization who wants to be there and wants to connect with students. (Anderson)

    This means that different types of organizations are needed to tackle different types of demographics in the community, especially those outside TSM’s normal sphere of influence. TSM is a caring organization, and a great starting point for these important conversations. However, a variety of perspectives helps us see the full picture of a situation, and it is no different in awareness programs.

    TSM’s reach can certainly be expanded through the use of more programs and mediums, such as social media campaigns, games, and books. However, that route can only go so far. The only way to truly expand the work they are doing in the community is for them to partner with other organizations, especially those that reach out to niches of the community that they are not as equipped to deal with. Luckily, TSM is already starting to work on this, creating volunteer commissions for other organizations in Tucson as part of their program. Still, potential exists for them to work in different ways with even more organizations, something that I would be excited to see them explore in the future. This reinforces the need for more organizations like TSM, each with diverse perspectives covering a wide range of audience demographics. Together, a collection of such organizations can accomplish what TSM never could on its own, reaching the entire community, one demographic at a time.

    When we are armed with the proper knowledge to tackle the suicide crisis, and approach the issue with our collective voice, we can change the narrative and take back hope for those who are struggling. No one should have to fight this battle alone and awareness programs provide a valuable weapon for securing our collective future. With more programs addressing individual communities, we can gain ground on the information front, one group at a time. Suicide may be a national crisis, but it is one that we have the power to conquer together.

    Works Cited

    Andemicael, Awet. “Positive Energy. A Review of the Role of Artistic Activities in Refugee Camps.” UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency, June 2011, https://www.unhcr.org/4def858a9.html

    Andemicael, Awet. “The Arts in Refugee Camps: Ten Good Reasons.” Forced Migration Review, May 2013, https://www.fmreview.org/fragilestates/andemicael

    Anderson, Erin. Personal Interview. 19 November 2022.

    AVRAMOVA, GERGANA. “Art Therapy in Nursing.” Medical Science Pulse, vol. 11, no. 3, July 2017, pp. 50–53. EBSCOhosthttps://doi.org/10.5604/01.3001.0010.5041.

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Suicide Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022 https://www.cdc.gov/suicide/facts/index.html#:~:text=In%202020%2C%20an%20estimated%2012.2,and%201.2%20million%20attempted%20suicide.&text=Suicide%20affects%20all%20ages.,for%20people%20ages%2010%2D64.

    Gaiha, Shivani Mathur, et al. "Effectiveness of arts interventions to reduce mental-health-related stigma among youth: a systematic review and meta-analysis." BMC Psychiatry, vol. 21, no. 1, 22 July 2021, p. NA. Gale OneFile: Psychologylink.gale.com/apps/doc/A672345288/PPPC?u=pima_main&sid=bookmark-PPPC&xid=68f97c17.

    Rogers, Michaela, et al. “The Change Up Project: Using Social Norming Theory with Young People to Address Domestic Abuse and Promote Healthy Relationships.” Journal of Family Violence, vol. 34, no. 6, Aug. 2019, pp. 507–19. EBSCOhosthttps://doi.org/10.1007/s10896-018-0026-9.

    Suicide Prevention Resource Center, SPRC. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2022 https://www.sprc.org

    Tymoszuk, Urszula, et al. “Arts Engagement Trends in the United Kingdom and Their Mental and Social Wellbeing Implications: HEartS Survey.” PloS One, vol. 16, no. 3, Mar. 2021, p. e0246078. EBSCOhosthttps://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0246078.

    Worsteling, Asha, and Byron W. Keating. “Community and Bystander Interventions for the Prevention of Suicide: Protocol for a Systematic Review.” PLoS ONE, vol. 17, no. 6, June 2022, pp. 1–10. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0270375.


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