How art can explore the relationship between mental health and the black community

More than 1in10 people suffer with a mental health disorder, globally. Poor mental health can impact one’s mood, thinking and behaviour. Research suggests that causes can be environmental stress, biology, psychological trauma and heredity. Black adults are more likely to experience serious mental health problems. Contributing to this fact is the massive inequities in the healthcare system, stigmatisation around mental illnesses, and issues of history and heritage. Artwork can highlight this overlap. Artists can use their artistic license to visualise, and expand upon, the relationship between racial injustice and mental health.

Artwork can visualise the mental health care system from a black perspective…

Drawing off of one’s personal experience can add a depth to an artwork’s subject; it can load a piece with emotion to create an opportunity for audience empathy. Gloria Swain does just this. The artist covers topics that delineate her experience as a black woman encountering the mental health care system. Swain depicts a variety of distressing avenues: institutionalisation, forced medication, sexual abuse and depression. She challenges modes of systematic oppression through a divulgence of her first-hand experience within an unjust system - one that has been proven to treat the black community unfairly.

Gloria C Swain, Healing Powers, 2020, acrylic on canvas. Photo credit: Darren Rigo © Image courtesy:

…but can also navigate the link through history and heritage

Structural racism, throughout history, has been proven to implicate the mental health of the black community today. Intergenerational trauma explores the impact of events that pass through a generation. This is prominent with events such as slavery and segregation. This, combined with present racial inequities, can cause the contemporary black community experience poor mental health. Alison Saar’s art expands upon this. They explore different forms of racism along with economic inequality to visualise the root causes of mental health discrepancies. Saar’s work cites how historically enforced structures curate a system of oppression that the black community falls victim to. 

Alison Saar, J'attends, 2007, mixed media 30.5 x 46 x 36 cm. Courtesy of:

Artists can confront stigmas around mental health within their work…

Just one in three Black American adults with a mental illness seek treatment - despite their greater risk. Mental health care is stigmatised in the black community for a variety of reasons: from a lack of trust in medical professionals to potential religious grounds. The former cites the structural racism that exists within the medical system, while one can also reference the associations of mental health with embarrassment or shame. Ryan Murray’s Problacc works upon a pun on the familiar medical brand Prozac, with the intention of shepherding coexistence between the black community and mental health space. The artist uses spray paint stencils due to their confrontational nature; thus, the subject matter becomes equally unflinching. Grabbing elements from pop culture, the artist seamlessly incites discussion on the relation between racial inequity and mental health.

Ryan Murray, Problacc, spray paint on canvas, 68.6 x 66 cm

…while also exploring the difficulty around mental health communication

Mental health is stigmatised within, and outside of, the black community. Many misinterpret mental illness and mental health assistance as a weakness. The ask for help can often be the hardest stage of treatment. O. D. Adedeji explores this in Vee. The artist displays contrasting emotions to reflect the misunderstood perceptions on mental health, along with the difficulty of communicating one’s own. Adedeji's work always brings focus back to the African diaspora and their experience. The artist thus references the higher levels of anxiety and depression within the black community, along with the struggle of emotional communication surrounding those very topics.

O.D.Adedeji, Vee, oil on canvas, 61 x 51 cm.


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