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Ashamed over my mental illness, I realized drawing might help me – and others – cope
Just before I turned 60, I discovered that sharing my story by drawing could be an effective way to both alleviate my symptoms and combat that stigma.
I've lived much of my life with anxiety and depression, including the negative feelings – shame and self-doubt – that seduced me into believing the stigma around mental illness: that people knew I wasn't good enough; that they would avoid me because I was different or unstable; and that I had to find a way to make them like me.
It took me some time – I'm a classic late bloomer – but just before I turned 60, I discovered that sharing my story by drawing could be an effective way to both alleviate my symptoms and combat that stigma.
Mental health disorders are complicated. There are 22 sections of criteria and codes in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – and that's just for anxiety. Meanwhile, the psychiatric literature on depression is enormous, with hundreds of scholarly articles and books published in the past two years alone.
One thing we seem to know for certain is that, somehow, anxiety and depression made it through the evolutionary process.
“Since antiquity," writes William Styron in “Darkness Made Visible: A Memoir of Madness," “in the tortured lament of Job, in the choruses of Sophocles and Aeschylus – chroniclers of the human spirit have been wrestling with a vocabulary that might give proper expression to the desolation of melancholia."
My first anxiety attacks happened early in life. By the time I was 13, I knew the signs: quickened breathing and an increased heart rate, blurry vision, sweaty palms, and sudden fight or flight impulses. Once, when on deck to bat in Little League, I became so panicked I dropped my bat and fled the ball field. I rode my bike all the way home, barely able to see five feet in front of me.
Growing up, I also spent countless hours drawing. I drew or scribbled on every scrap of paper I could find, and I copied those funny characters that appeared on the back of each week's issue of TV Guide. While I took one art class in high school, I was mostly self-taught. I always knew I loved to draw, but I never wondered why. It was just something I did.
As I grew older, I continued to suffer from panic attacks and depressive episodes, which I managed to hide from others. I eventually became a theater professor at Penn State University, where I still teach today. In addition to teaching history and literature, I make autobiographical solo performance pieces. But in 2014, my sister died after spending two years in a vegetative state due to a traumatic brain injury. It was as if the one thread capable of unraveling my entire life was pulled.
Drawing became almost an obsession.
'Sister Sam.' (William Doan, CC BY-ND)
I did over 200 drawings of my sister and eventually created a play and solo performance piece titled “Drifting." I visually archived her journey to death. In the midst of this, I started what became the Anxiety Project, which now contains over 500 drawings and two performance pieces. I didn't really think too much about its purpose. I just knew I had to make drawings about anxiety and depression.
I made a lot of this work without any initial plans to share it. I was just trying to survive. As I slowly began to share some of the work, there was a strange mix of relief from sharing my feelings and dread that the work would ultimately fail to mean anything to others, or that people would think I was crazy for making this kind of work. (These same feelings have cropped up while writing this article.)
And then I pretty much crashed. I still couldn't emerge from my grief or separate it from my ongoing struggles with anxiety and depression.
'Time Lies.' (William Doan, CC BY-ND)
I was in trouble. And I knew I had to get help. So I started to tell my wife and family the truth – that this struggle went beyond the death of my sister, that for most of my life, I had been in an almost constant battle with anxiety and depression, and that I was afraid I was finally losing and might go crazy. I found an excellent therapist. I started doing the hard work of living with my anxiety and depression honestly and openly, which, for me, includes taking an antidepressant. Acknowledging and accepting the need for medication was perhaps the most difficult stigma to face. I felt like a failure. Getting past that feeling took some time.
'Dark/Light.' (William Doan, CC BY-ND)
Living openly with my anxiety and depression has helped me better understand my drawing and creative work as efforts to make meaning out of the volcanic feelings of fear and despair – and the almost catatonic shutdowns that could happen inside me at any time.
This new understanding eventually led me to become intentional about drawing as a way to imagine myself as mentally healthy, rather than define myself by my mental illness. I drew upon the work of artists like Frederick Franck and his books “The Zen of Seeing" and “The Awakened Eye," which outline simple meditative approaches to drawing.
I work almost solely in ink- and water-based mediums because of the gestural and fluid ways I can translate feelings into lines and movement of color. I draw every day, and sometimes I'll simply draw what I see – birds, flowers, landscapes, people, myself – to stay grounded in the here and now.
'RoseHips Meditation.' (William Doan, CC BY-ND)
Sharing what it's like to live with anxiety and depression feels like undressing in front of strangers, but I thought it might help decrease stigma, which nearly 90% of people with mental health problems say has a negative effect on their lives.
As I learned more about the connection between drawing, wellness and stigma, it turns out that I was onto something.
In 2016, psychologist Jennifer Drake and her team of researchers studied the benefits of drawing over four consecutive days, and discovered that the simple daily act has benefits. “You can get a positive effect with just 15 minutes of drawing," she concludes. “Drawing to distract is a simple and powerful way to elevate mood, at least in the short term." Meanwhile, researchers across many scientific fields have explored the ways art making can combat stigma about mental illness.
As Jenny Lawson writes in “Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things," “When you come out of the grips of a depression there is an incredible relief, but not one you feel allowed to celebrate. Instead, the feeling of victory is replaced with anxiety that it will happen again, and with shame and vulnerability when you see how your illness affected your family, your work, everything left untouched while you struggled to survive."
For me, it was the kind of shame that shepherds you right into the waiting arms of the stigma around mental illness. I needed to find a way through – for myself and, hopefully, for others.
Art became the way.
'17 million.' (William Doan, CC BY-ND)
- How craft is good for our health - Big Think ›
- Is There a Link between Creativity and Mental Illness? - Big Think ›
The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
- Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
- To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
COVID-19 deepens U.S. health disparities<p>Communities on the pernicious side of America's health disparities have their unique histories, environments, and social structures. They are spread across the United States, but they all have one thing in common.</p><p>"There is one common divide in American communities, and that is poverty," said <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/about/leadership/debbie-salas-lopez" target="_blank">Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH</a>, senior vice president of community and population health at Northwell Health. "That is the undercurrent that manifests poor health, poor health outcomes, or poor health prognoses for future wellbeing."</p><p>Social determinants have far-reaching effects on health, and poor communities have unfavorable social determinants. To pick one of many examples, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/27/913612554/a-crisis-within-a-crisis-food-insecurity-and-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">food insecurity</a> reduces access to quality food, leading to poor health and communal endemics of chronic medical conditions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified some of these conditions, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as increasing the risk of developing a severe case of coronavirus.</p><p>The pandemic didn't create poverty or food insecurity, but it exacerbated both, and the results have been catastrophic. A study published this summer in the <em><a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05971-3" target="_blank">Journal of General Internal Medicine</a></em> suggested that "social factors such as income inequality may explain why some parts of the USA are hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than others."</p><p>That's not to say better-off families in the U.S. weren't harmed. A <a href="https://voxeu.org/article/poverty-inequality-and-covid-19-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper from the Centre for Economic Policy Research</a> noted that families in counties with a higher median income experienced adjustment costs associated with the pandemic—for example, lowering income-earning interactions to align with social distancing policies. However, the paper found that the costs of social distancing were much greater for poorer families, who cannot easily alter their living circumstances, which often include more individuals living in one home and a reliance on mass transit to reach work and grocery stores. They are also disproportionately represented in essential jobs, such as retail, transportation, and health care, where maintaining physical distance can be all but impossible.</p><p>The paper also cited a positive correlation between higher income inequality and higher rates of coronavirus infection. "Our interpretation is that poorer people are less able to protect themselves, which leads them to different choices—they face a steeper trade-off between their health and their economic welfare in the context of the threats posed by COVID-19," the authors wrote.</p><p>"There are so many pandemics that this pandemic has exacerbated," Dr. Salas-Lopez noted.</p><p>One example is the health-wealth gap. The mental stressors of maintaining a low socioeconomic status, especially in the face of extreme affluence, can have a physically degrading impact on health. <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/index.cfm/_api/render/file/?method=inline&fileID=123ECD96-EF81-46F6-983D2AE9A45FA354" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Writing on this gap</a>, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, notes that socioeconomic stressors can increase blood pressure, reduce insulin response, increase chronic inflammation, and impair the prefrontal cortex and other brain functions through anxiety, depression, and cognitive load. </p><p>"Thus, from the macro level of entire body systems to the micro level of individual chromosomes, poverty finds a way to produce wear and tear," Sapolsky writes. "It is outrageous that if children are born into the wrong family, they will be predisposed toward poor health by the time they start to learn the alphabet."</p>Research on the economic and mental health fallout of COVID-19 is showing two things: That unemployment is hitting <a href="https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continues-to-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">low-income and young Americans</a> most during the pandemic, potentially widening the health-wealth gap further; and that the pandemic not only exacerbates mental health stressors, but is doing so at clinically relevant levels. As <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7413844/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the authors of one review</a> wrote, the pandemic's effects on mental health is itself an international public health priority.
Working to close the health gap<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5MDk1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTYyMzQzMn0.KSFpXH7yHYrfVPtfgcxZqAHHYzCnC2bFxwSrJqBbH4I/img.jpg?width=980" id="b40e2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1b9035370ab7b02a0dc00758e494412b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Northwell Health coronavirus testing center at Greater Springfield Community Church.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>Novel coronavirus may spread and infect indiscriminately, but pre-existing conditions, environmental stressors, and a lack of access to care and resources increase the risk of infection. These social determinants make the pandemic more dangerous, and erode communities' and families' abilities to heal from health crises that pre-date the pandemic.</p><p>How do we eliminate these divides? Dr. Salas-Lopez says the first step is recognition. "We have to open our eyes to see the suffering around us," she said. "Northwell has not shied away from that."</p><p>"We are steadfast in improving health outcomes for our vulnerable and underrepresented communities that have suffered because of the prevalence of chronic disease, a problem that led to the disproportionately higher death rate among African-Americans and Latinos during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Michael Dowling, Northwell's president and CEO. "We are committed to using every tool at our disposal—as a provider of health care, employer, purchaser and investor—to combat disparities and ensure the <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/education-and-resources/community-engagement/center-for-equity-of-care" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">equity of care</a> that everyone deserves." </p><p>With the need recognized, Dr. Salas-Lopez calls for health care systems to travel upstream and be proactive in those hard-hit communities. This requires health care systems to play a strong role, but not a unilateral one. They must build <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/news/insights/faith-based-leaders-are-the-key-to-improving-community-health" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">partnerships with leaders in those communities</a> and utilize those to ensure relationships last beyond the current crisis. </p><p>"We must meet with community leaders and talk to them to get their perspective on what they believe the community needs are and should be for the future. Together, we can co-create a plan to measurably improve [community] health and also to be ready for whatever comes next," she said.</p><p>Northwell has built relationships with local faith-based and community organizations in underserved communities of color. Those partnerships enabled Northwell to test more than 65,000 people across the metro New York region. The health system also offered education on coronavirus and precautions to curb its spread.</p><p>These initiatives began the process of building trust—trust that Northwell has counted on to return to these communities to administer flu vaccines to prepare for what experts fear may be a difficult flu season.</p><p>While Northwell has begun building bridges across the divides of the New York area, much will still need to be done to cure U.S. health care overall. There is hope that the COVID pandemic will awaken us to the deep disparities in the US.</p><p>"COVID has changed our world. We have to seize this opportunity, this pandemic, this crisis to do better," Dr. Salas-Lopez said. "Provide better care. Provide better health. Be better partners. Be better community citizens. And treat each other with respect and dignity.</p><p>"We need to find ways to unify this country because we're all human beings. We're all created equal, and we believe that health is one of those important rights."</p>
Philosopher Nick Bostrom's "singleton hypothesis" predicts the future of human societies.
- Nick Bostrom's "singleton hypothesis" says that intelligent life on Earth will eventually form a "singleton".
- The "singleton" could be a single government or an artificial intelligence that runs everything.
- Whether the singleton will be positive or negative depends on numerous factors and is not certain.
Want to Retain American Jobs? Stop Blaming Globalization<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="oxK8j1xN" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="2cf425d7b91ed2a6fc4fe19d065f3408"> <div id="botr_oxK8j1xN_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/oxK8j1xN-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/oxK8j1xN-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/oxK8j1xN-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
The rites we give to the dead help us understand what it takes to go on living.
As the coronavirus pandemic hit New York in March, the death toll quickly went up with few chances for families and communities to perform traditional rites for their loved ones.
Shannon Lee shares lessons from her father in her new book, "Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee."
- Bruce Lee would have turned 80 years old on November 27, 2020. The legendary actor and martial artist's daughter, Shannon Lee, shares some of his wisdom and his philosophy on self help in a new book titled "Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee."
- In this video, Shannon shares a story of the fight that led to her father beginning a deeper philosophical journey, and how that informed his unique expression of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do.
- One lesson passed down from Bruce Lee was his use and placement of physical symbols as a way to help "cement for yourself this new way of being, or this new lesson you've learned." By working on ourselves (with the right tools), we can develop the skills necessary to rise and conquer new challenges.