Art and “Mental Health”


Created in collaboration with Mike Misgen, MA, LPC

Based on a talk given to the Denver Area Co-Counseling Artist Support Group September 24, 2017

[Note: The first paragraph makes fun of some cultural attitudes.]

Thanks for buying our new how-to guide. Now you too can collect mental health system labels, especially ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). It’s quite simple, actually, to add “ADD” to your portfolio of identities. Here’s how: when you see something new and relate it to things you already know, just get VERY excited about your discovery and relay it to a slower reacting person very QUICKLY, LOUDLY and with lots of ENERGY. If you get scared, change your focus with no warning and almost immediately to something else that’s exciting. (Squirrel!)

But seriously: If you take a moment to integrate that new perception, you may create new art and new, interesting stuff to think and talk about.

Artists sometimes get accused of having various mental illnesses and conditions because we often see the associations between things faster than other people do, we get excited like young children do, and we try to tell people about it just like we did when we were very young. They misinterpret us and say that we’re “over-excited” or “frenetic” or “manic”. If we get upset or despondent because nobody understood what we said, they say we’re “depressed” or “manic-depressive” or “bi-polar” or whatever other labels are fashionable for scaring people into acting like tiny versions of their real selves.

In contrast, I would like to tell you something I just noticed and show you how my mind works as an artist (aka human being) as I process and integrate this information.

A few minutes ago, I was feeling too hot and I took off my jacket. Then I noticed the dress I’m wearing, which is a dress I love; it’s purple and very long and flowing. And a memory is attached to it.

A while ago, when I lived in Boulder, I was part of a household that included an amazing dancer. As with many artists, he took classes and performed at night and had a day job to pay the bills. One day, we were having a house meeting in our large, shared living room. On the way to the meeting, he looked into my room and saw my dress laid out on my bed. He put it on, unbeknownst to me, and came DANCING through the living room in the style of the modern dance pioneer, Isadora Duncan. He could do that, he was that good, and in this dress, he could leap and sail through the air like that with the dress flowing behind him.

It was so thrilling to see how he saw my dress and immediately made art. My roommates and I all laughed and laughed, because he was also so beautiful – men are not usually allowed to dance that way. And we loved it.

By the way, he was a heterosexual man, joyfully doing something that would get him labeled “gay” which happens to artists a lot, whatever their actual sexual orientation is. Many of us cannot be boxed into a simple gender role, which, of course, has its pro’s and con’s, its enlightened aspects mixed in with its distresses.

So . . . when I looked at my dress, I connected with that memory. I got very excited when I remembered what my roommate had done with my dress, when he saw it and used it in the moment to make art.

As I wear this dress today, I have a relationship to my roommate, to that brilliant dance he did, and to the excitement I have about it.

With Mike Misgen’s help, I am intentionally telling you my story in a way that includes you. Because I know that you, as an artist, sometimes notice things and get excited. And sometimes people try to shut you down, try to squelch your excitement. They have forgotten how to really be enthusiastic so you look weird to them. Of course, anything that’s weird is socially unacceptable . . . and THAT is mental health oppression.

Artists experience it all the time. How many artists have committed suicide? Or thought about it? How many artists are alcoholics? How many artists have died from heroin overdoses? It’s partly because of what I just described – that we notice things that trigger great excitement in us as we behold a new way of looking at the world and putting things together in new ways.

We are considered “crazy” if we try to express our wonderment or excitement to someone else in anything other than a socially acceptable, cool, calm, collected, “adult” manner.

Mike: Because we are pushing right up against where they got shut down.

Lynn: Exactly. And people try to slow us down; people try to shut us up. Sometimes we get locked up in mental institutions.

Now, part of why this is on my mind is because you, Mike Misgen, asked me to give this talk in a way that would consciously try to include you, the other person who showed up for the support group, as much as possible.

So – I had an insight, I started to get excited, and then I took your direction to include you in my excitement. That is something that any artist has to think about – how we communicate, how we are received, how we get support for those times when we don’t get the reception we deserve.

This includes every child because every child starts out as an artist. Every child is always looking at the world, figuring it out, putting things together in new ways, sometimes getting VERY excited about it, running to tell somebody who’s distracted because they’re overworked, or they’re tired, they’re making dinner, or they already heard 700 things that little child got excited about today, and they just don’t have even a tiny bit of attention left.

What happens then? The child gets slapped, literally or figuratively. They are told things like, “You’re bad. You’re driving Mommy crazy. Go be quiet somewhere. Go be by yourself.”

Mike: Don’t be a bother!

Lynn: Right. Instead, what the child deserves is someone to warmly receive them and their brilliant ideas, be delighted with what they’re noticing, celebrate them, hold them, and most important, be connected to them.

But a lot of times, that’s not what happens so we get isolated. We become isolated artists. And everybody in our culture has the disease of isolation after they’re very young because of those things that happen to us. We don’t deserve it. And we’re not wrong. Some of us, including me, have gone through dark periods of our lives, years of deep depression, because of not being able to see around that OR find enough people that have attention for us so we can work through it in an easy, fun way. It ends up being painful.

During those dark times, you might be pressured into taking psychiatric drugs. (That’ll “take care” of all those messy emotions you keep insisting on showing.) Sometimes you are also sent to your room, i.e. the mental institution, until you act the way you’re supposed to act.

Here’s the miracle. Over and over again, even though we get slapped, threatened or shut down in any way, we come back out and create more art because the creative impulse in us is so strong.


That talk I just gave was satisfying because I was able to take Mike’s direction of noticing my excitement but using inclusive language so that other people would feel like, “Oh yes. I know what THAT is. I know how that applies to me.” Everybody starts telling their own story internally when that kind of language is used.

If you’re performing or teaching, you can increase your students and audience’s engagement by using inclusive language that speaks to them and activates their own stories.

Mike: Yeah!

Lynn: So Mike, you and I were both successful. You gave me a great direction. I was able to take it, and whenever you felt like adding something, as you tracked with me, you did. We made the story interactive and conversational. Thank you!

* Coda is a musical term which refers to the concluding passage of a piece, typically forming an addition to the basic structure. In dance, it means the finale of a ballet in which the dancers parade before the audience. In written or spoken language, it is also a concluding remark.

 Note to whoever reads this and wants to share it:

Please DO, and please give credit so others who want to continue this conversation can find me.

Lynn Grasberg               

“The body heals with play, the mind heals with laughter and the spirit heals with joy!”