A crack in the
wall. Most people wouldn’t even notice it. But for Danielle
Hark, it was a spark of inspiration.
after giving birth to her first daughter in 2010, Hark, a
writer and photographer from Millburn, N.J., fell into a
severe depression. Getting out of bed became impossible.
Anxiety struck whenever she considered leaving the house.
Thoughts of suicide loomed.
One day in the
shower, she suddenly felt she couldn’t breathe. “I thought
I was dying,” she recalled. “I didn’t need to kill
myself because I was about to be dead.”
for her phone to call for help, but accidentally snapped a
photo instead. Then she noticed the crack and thought, “That
would make a good picture.”
one thought and just that one breath helped me to become more
present,” she said.
didn’t cure her depression, but it started her on a journey
of recovery — one that she continues today. Taking
photographs gets her out of the house, engaging with the world
around her, and transforming things that some see as ugly —
crumbling paint, cracks in a sidewalk — into art.
founded a website for photographers affected by mental
illness, hoping to raise awareness and encourage others to
document their recovery. On Nov. 10, she’ll be sharing her
story at the debut of a chamber music ensemble focused on
It’s one of a
growing number of creative endeavors that are bringing mental
health center stage. Most of these initiatives — from
theater performances to local art shows — aim to create
awareness. But for those with mental illness, such as Hark,
who stand at the center of these works as performers and
creators, the process becomes a path to healing. It’s not a
cure, but it provides a sense of control over their lives that
can sometimes feel lost.
that engaging in creative-arts therapy — which can include
visual arts, dance, theater, and poetry — can reduce pain
and anxiety, help people cope with depression and trauma, and
aid in treatments for addiction.
Performing in a
play or taking photos is not the same as taking part in
creative-arts therapy, said Rachel Brandoff, coordinator of
the art-therapy specialization in counseling at Thomas
Jefferson University, but “it’s a parallel process in many
ways.” Creative-arts therapy involves a trained professional
who guides and interprets the work. But engaging in a creative
work on one’s own can still help people find purpose, better
understand their emotions, and connect with others.
have a really powerful and transformative experience even if
it’s not therapy,” Brandoff said.
Over the years,
Hark has used theater, poetry, and mixed-media art — along
with medication and therapy — to deal with depression,
anxiety, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Every night after her children go to sleep, she spends hours
in her basement studio, a routine that gives her structure and
flutist Susanna Loewy feels the same way about music.
Practicing scales for an hour each morning helps her energize
and refocus when she’s depressed.
co-founded Ellipses Ensemble, the mental health-focused
concert series at which Hark’s story will be shared. She
hopes music might provide a pathway to recovery for some, the
way it does for her.
CREATIVITY HELP MENTAL HEALTH?
Researchers don’t know yet.
they’ve shown creative-arts therapies improve mood and can
even lower stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol,
researchers are still trying to figure out how that happens.
indicate that creating art allows people to communicate
emotions that are difficult to say out loud. Others point to
art’s ability to distract the mind from negative thoughts.
Emerging research is focusing on how engaging in creative work
improves connections in the brain — a process called
neuroplasticity — and can even help generate new connections
— called neurogenesis.
are constantly thinking about the future, said Girija Kaimal,
an assistant professor in the creative-arts therapies
department at Drexel University. For those with depression or
suicidal thoughts, the future can look bleak. They might feel
they are a burden to others or have nothing to contribute. The
creative process helps change people’s perspectives.
individuals with mental illness a way to imagine a positive
and fulfilling future,” she said.
Art also helps
people better understand their emotions — like a mirror,
reflecting back what they have created.
Emeigh sat down to write his story of living with
schizoaffective disorder, he thought about how to explain the
mental illness to someone who’d never heard of it. He
searched for the perfect metaphor to describe the overwhelming
loneliness and constant fear that no one would understand what
he’s going through or they might lock him away.
able to connect with what you’re actually feeling on a
deeper level,” he said, “because you’re looking for the
right words to describe to someone who might not
performed the essay in October at an Elkins Park show of
“This Is My Brave,” a national nonprofit that coordinates
performances around the country in which people with mental
illness share their stories through poetry, essays, and music.
He told a story
of devils and angels, traveling into hell through “Untreated
Mental Illness Road,” and fighting to escape with his
sister’s help. “I woke up in heaven, and some people call
that a hospital,” he wrote.
Creating a work
of art can also give physical shape to an invisible illness,
Brandoff said. People can step outside themselves and turn
their diagnosis into a painting or photograph. “It allows
them to understand it as a piece of themselves and not
themselves entirely,” she said.
It took a while
for Jasmine Tot to reach that point. She’d often felt
depressed in high school, but the illness became consuming
when her best friend was killed two days after graduation.
didn’t want to be around me because I was always upset or
sad,” she said. “That’s when I realized I have to figure
from picking up a paintbrush. Tot would blend colors, paint
large strokes, add detail, and by the end, “I know my
emotions are on the canvas and I can move forward,” she
displayed her work at a Philadelphia showcase called The
Funeral, aimed at creating a space to discuss mental health.
For Ed Quinn, a
retired officer from the Philadelphia Adult Probation and
Parole Department who struggles with depression and
alcoholism, performing his story at This Is My Brave allowed
him to stop hiding his mental illness from others.
aloud was “like taking off a couple layers of coats you
don’t need in the first place,” Quinn said. “I’m just
left with the actual problem, which is then easier to cope
advantage to creative arts, Brandoff said, is that they can
reach more people — those who can’t seek therapy, who
think they don’t need it, and even those without an actual
That power was
clear to Gabriel Nathan when he put on a play with his
colleagues at a psychiatric hospital in Montgomery County in
2014. Although Nathan deals with anxiety and depression, not
all his coworkers had diagnoses. Yet when they performed
“Our Town,” by Thornton Wilder, they all benefited.
to be vulnerable with one another and with an audience,”
said Nathan, who now works as editor of a website about
people’s guard down a bit,” he said. “’Oh, I’m just
rehearsing for a play.’ No, you’re not. You’re actually