“Harvard isn’t always the glossy ivy-covered utopia that many conceive it to be. There are moments of that place, yes. Walking past Memorial Church in the fall with reds and oranges on the ground around you, the first warm day in the spring when students on blankets adorn the Yard. Brochure Harvard does exist. The reality of the situation, however, is that this is not the Harvard that many students must wake up to and battle every single day. It is not always a place where conversations about mental health are necessarily encouraged.”
Penned for The Crimson two years ago by an anonymous student, the essay from which this excerpt originates brought campus-wide attention to certain realities about mental health at Harvard, serving as the catalyst for a wave of discussions among faculty and students about the issue. A similar anonymous op-ed published just last semester, "In Sight, Out of Mind" further highlighted what many construed to be unsympathetic policies and a lack of accessibility to mental health resources at Harvard, spurring additional conversation about mental health services and reform. Student response to these pieces was overwhelming—from an impromptu rally outside Massachusetts Hall to a town hall event sponsored by the Undergraduate Council, mental health quickly rose to the forefront of campus discussion.
Active in the effort to raise awareness of mental health issues have been Harvard’s artists—for instance, spoken word organization Harvard Speak Out Loud has hosted an annual mental health open mic for the past three years. Other artists have sought to generate awareness about the subject by creating public installations around campus.
Through a variety of different disciplines, the arts have collectively provided Harvard students with an outlet for creative self-expression, allowing them to explore issues of mental health in safe spaces and with a freedom of expression that allows for emotional catharsis. One campus artist who has utilized art to generate discussion about mental health, Bex H. Kwan ’14, sees the two as inseparable: “What is art not on mental health issues?”
THE TORTURED ARTIST
The arts have long found themselves linked to mental health, especially due to the myth of the tortured artist that perpetuates a certain stereotype about artists and the creative process. Critics across the world have praised the works of Boston-born poet Sylvia Plath, yet her infamous suicide is as well known as her seminal novel “The Bell Jar.” Writer David Foster Wallace, who similarly suffered from depression throughout his life, committed suicide at the age of 46 and has often been referred to as a literary genius—but one whose tortured brilliance was prematurely terminated. Even the post-Impressionist master Vincent van Gogh is popularly recognized as having struggled with mental illness, his prolific career cut short by a self-inflicted gunshot wound at age 37. Already larger-than-life figures, these artists have gained a greater air of mystery due to their tumultuous lives.
Although it may be tempting to characterize artists as solitary individuals manifesting inner distress in their artwork, student artists argue that this romanticization of mental illness trivializes depression and misrepresents the artistic process. English concentrator Jennifer T. Soong ’14, an inactive Crimson Arts writer, thinks that mental illness and the creative process are often erroneously conflated. “I see [them] as very separate things. I think it’s very dangerous to superimpose [them], and I don’t think there’s anything romantic about either one, and especially not the two together,” Soong says. “Mental health is just your mental state, which is your way of being.”
For last year’s Arts First festival, Soong collaborated with psychology concentrator My Ngoc C. To ’15 on plans for a public art installation that would provoke students to think more introspectively about their lives. Titled “Mental Space,” the piece was conceived as a large spiral structure in the middle of Harvard Yard. “The walls would be covered with objects that people would bring to the spiral, to show the emotional topography of Harvard students,” To says. The two assembled a team of artists and even established an official student organization called Harvard College Mental Space, which allowed them to secure grant funding from various sources. “We wanted it to be a public art project because mental health issues are often such an isolated phenomenon,” she says. “Having something so private be put in a public space where everyone could interact with it would help stimulate some more dialogue.” However, bureaucratic hurdles involving the construction of such a large piece ultimately stonewalled the project, and it was never completed.
Before “Mental Space,” To also worked on another installation in Pforzheimer House consisting of full-length mirrors placed in common areas. Each mirror was labeled “This is what depression looks like” and covered with sticky notes representing common stigmas such as “Depression is the result of a character flaw.” As students walked past the mirrors, they were encouraged to remove sticky notes, literally peeling away the stigmas surrounding depression, until only an uncovered mirror remained. “I think that art is a really powerful way of moving people, and sometimes it takes something like art to really understand what mental illness is like,” To says.
Mental health remains a deeply personal subject for To, who has previously struggled with depression. “Being depressed, it sinks you in such lows that normally you wouldn’t be able to comprehend, so you see a darkness that is beyond what normal life is like, and that’s something that’s very powerful,” To says. She ultimately took a gap year as a result of her mental illness. During this time, she wrote a memoir titled “The Washing Room,” which describes her experiences with suicide and psychiatric care and frames them within the context of her Vietnamese-American background. Her book, which was published this year, was exhibited in the 2013 Boston Book Festival.
For To, writing was both a healing process and a way to move on. "Writing about my experiences really helped for me to turn a painful experience into something that was much more than that—into a work of art,” she says. “Being able to write my story and frame it into a book with a happy ending is really therapeutic." However, To decries the trope of the tortured artist, stating that depression in no way fueled her writing process. “I think that creativity and mental illness are completely separate things. I feel even more creative now that I'm healthy and on top of things.”
MAKING THEIR VOICES HEARD
On a Friday evening in mid-October of this year, students gather in Boylston Hall’s Ticknor Lounge. The room’s comfortable red armchairs have been rearranged into a semicircle, and students sit facing the chalkboard at the center of the room. A solitary microphone stands at this stage, under dim yellow lighting that complements the warm wood paneling of the lounge. More groups of students enter and make themselves comfortable on the floor or a windowsill as Harvard Speak Out Loud’s mental health open mic, “Words on the Mind,” begins.