When I was a kid, I avoided being in the spotlight. I would get knots in my stomach when I participated in class or spoke publicly on behalf of a student organization. However, it got easier as I got older.
In college, a professor asked me to perform at an event on campus. With much hesitation, I performed my poetry in front of a packed room of students, faculty and administrators. Afterward, people approached me, saying they enjoyed my performance and could relate to what I shared. I was surprised that people connected with my words, so I continued to write and perform poetry at other student-led events.
Performance poetry became my therapeutic release. I wrote about everything—from my challenges with relationships and family to various worries that took up residence in my mind. After I graduated, however, I stopped performing. No longer surrounded by like-minded peers, stage fright set back in as I entered the “adult world.”
Finding Courage in a Safe Space
Several years later, I found the confidence to get on stage again, thanks to the Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP)—a nonprofit organization that reintegrates veterans and military families into their communities through the arts. As a military brat, I found ASAP’s mission truly inspirational. It offered a safe place to our country’s heroes, many of them living with mental health conditions ranging from depression to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
After a few months getting comfortable in front of a live audience with ASAP, I challenged myself to audition for This Is My Brave, an arts nonprofit dedicated to ending mental illness stigma through storytelling. Until that audition, I had always been a vocal mental health advocate in my professional life, encouraging others to seek help and to always remember that they are not alone; however, I had been afraid to talk about my own mental health.
It was during that performance that I finally “came out” about my mental health journey. My spoken word piece was about how hard it had been to find a culturally-competent therapist who took my insurance—a search that took over a year to accomplish. I must admit, walking on to the stage was nerve-wracking. I still remember my throat tightening up and my palms sweating. I took a deep breath and spoke into the mic.
Suddenly, it didn’t matter that I was in front of a live audience. I somehow felt stronger as I performed my piece. And after the show, friends and former colleagues came to congratulate me. Many of them knew that I was passionate about mental health and they expressed how grateful they were that I was willing to be so vulnerable and honest about my own struggles.
The Healing Power of the Arts
There are so many ways to live well with a mental health condition. Since I’ve started therapy, I’ve been diagnosed with anxiety and depression. For some, treatment may include psychotherapy, medications, support groups, education programs and other strategies. In addition to creating a treatment plan with my doctor and therapist, I personally define living well to also include exercising regularly, eating nutritious food and taking on art projects.
Working on my writing serves as another way to cope with my mental health conditions. I’ve learned that creatively expressing my emotions, thoughts, worries and fears through art—and sharing that art with others—helps my recovery. And I believe that no matter what you’re going through, the arts might be able to help you cope as well.
Whether you’re a veteran or civilian, a student or a professor, a person with a mental health condition or someone who’s going through a challenging time, there is so much to gain from the arts. By sharing your craft with others through organizations like ASAP and This is My Brave, you can connect with people who have similar lived experience.
You can also open the door for others, encouraging them to share their journeys of struggle and strength. And by continuing to refine your craft—whether it’s painting, writing or performing on stage on a regular basis—you can find a sense of healing.
Ryann Tanap is manager of social media and digital assets at NAMI.