Vincent van Gogh is celebrated for his whimsical “The Starry Night” and “Irises,” but the mental illness that dominated his life is often not entirely understood. Van Gogh, however, was not an anomaly: The motif of the “tortured artist” is in fact a recurring pattern, with artists often battling mental illness as their creations are celebrated.
The Boston University Arts Initiative held a panel Thursday called “The Reality of Artists and Mental Health” to discuss how the industry and environment impact mental health in art, and the stigma around it.
The panel included artists, as well as mental health professionals and advocates in the music world, including associate director of Student Health Services and Director of Behavioral Medicine Carrie Landa, who moderated the event.
The event fell on BU’s first scheduled Wellness Day, which was a “happy coincidence,” Ty Furman, managing director of the BU Arts Initiative, said in an interview.
He said there were “so many” reasons for organizing the event.
“Everyone is struggling,” he said. “I’m struggling, my colleagues are struggling and we know students are struggling.”
He said particularly in dance, theater and choral music, community is woven into the art. Without that, the mental health challenges have been exacerbated, he said.
Pianist Tanya Gabrielian, who is the chair of BU’s piano department in the College of Fine Arts and organized the event, spoke at the event along with panelists from across the East Coast.
Gabrielian said she initially came to the Initiative with the idea to host an event specifically acknowledging the suffering artist.
“This seminar is particularly to address the issues that the actual performing artist goes through,” she said. “It’s the dark side of the story.”
She said though art is often looked at as a way to cope with mental illness, the artists behind the work aren’t often acknowledged.
“There’s been a lot of research with art therapies, music therapy and all that kind of stuff, but one aspect of it that’s never been discussed is the mental health of the actual artists themselves,” she said, “because for us, it is not therapy to play music, it is our job, and the requirements of that job are so rigorous.”
Peter Danzig, a psychotherapist and former professional musical theater performer, said at the event they treat mental illness specifically in artists and queer individuals. They said artists are under intense pressure and experience isolation often.
“It’s fairly common that artists feel that they can’t have a voice, that they have to be ‘grateful’ just to work,” Danzig said. “A lot of my research just really primarily challenges the ideas of the starving artists and forcing artists not to advocate for themselves.”
Panelist Caroline Whiddon said at the event she saw her soon-to-be-husband get fired from his conducting job because of his mental illness.
“He was experiencing the manifestations of his bipolar disorder and asking for time to adjust his medication for some accommodations to get his mental health back into a stable place,” she said, “but instead, he was immediately fired.”
Side-by-side, the couple created “Me2/,” the world’s only classical music working to combat the stigma around mental illness in the field, which has several non-auditioned orchestras in New England.
“We’re hoping to create a very supportive and stigma-free rehearsal environment that chips away at the self-stigmatization that happens with people who are living with mental health disorders,” Whiddon said, “and then through our performances, which include both inspiring music and very inspiring stories from people who live with a diagnosis, we hope to erase the stigma.”
Gabrielian said she has been raising awareness for mental health issues through music for the past 11 years. She said she hopes her work, and that of others, can help people understand they are not alone.
“For me, the importance of the arts is not just the art itself, but its power for communication about other relevant things that we all feel,” Gabrielian said. “We don’t all feel music in the same way, but we all feel the emotions in the same way.”