Courtesy of Tatenda Magaisa

‘Minding Our Business’ is a podcast that unpacks mental health and wellness in the visual arts

Minding Our Business is a six-part podcast series dealing with mental health and wellness in the visual arts. The series is done by Rera Letsema in collaboration with the Visual Arts Network of South Africa (VANSA) and looks into such topics relating to mental health as the romanticization of mental illnesses, stigmas surrounding mental health, lived experiences of mental health conditions as well as avenues of support for those suffering from mental health problems. Forming a part of a larger research project on mental health within the arts by VANSA the series is not only aimed at creating awareness but creating understanding and pushing for change.

An extract from the summary of episode 1 (introduction to the podcast) reads as follows:

Mental health in the visual arts is generally ignored, romanticised or ostracised and work in the industry can be precarious – often leading to the development and exacerbation of mental health issues. This episode expands on these ideas with the hope that the podcast, together with further research and awareness, will lead to solutions in providing support, stability and growth for artists in our communities.

 I had an interview with Tshegofatso Mabaso from Rera Letsema (a collaborative research space) to find out more about the podcast:

Could you please explain how the idea for this podcast came about?

In 2017 we (Rera Letsema) did a residency at Keleketla! Library. We produced our first podcast project titled Proclamation which invited artists working in Johannesburg to engage on various topics relating to being and artists, access to space, resources etc. The issue of mental health was something we felt was important to engage but felt it needed its own platform to engage the complexity of the issue. In conversation with Molemo Moiloa who was the director of VANSA at the time, the idea of a podcast on mental health came up.

Fast forward to 2018 VANSA invited us to produce a series of podcasts on mental health and wellness to form part of a larger research project on mental health and wellness in the visual arts. The broader project will have various outcomes including a toolkit with various resources.

How were topics for each episode narrowed down?

At the start of the project, in conversation with VANSA, Tatenda and I put together a list of topics that we felt spoke to different aspects of mental health and wellness in the visual arts. We then refined these topics based on the participants for each episode to relate the topics to their experiences or practices.

How were the guests for each episode selected and why were they selected for those specific topics?

We had a Trello board where together with Lauren von Gogh and Kabelo Malatsi from VANSA, we would post articles, artists talking about mental health or engaging the issue in their practice and from there started reaching out to each artist to find out if they’d be interested in participating in the project. We also invited Professor Rita Thom, a specialist psychiatrist to speak about specific condition, health care and treatment in South Africa, challenges in the health care system and stigma.

We did research on the individual artists invited to speak as a way of linking their work or in other cases their activism around mental health to the various topics.

Why do you believe that mental health issues are exacerbated in the visual arts and what are the implications of this specifically on a local scale?

We started the project with the thinking that people in creative sectors are more likely to experience mental health issues, and doing the podcast series has since complicated our understanding of this. Artists (writers, performer etc.) are often labelled as the tortured or troubled genius, the trope of the troubled artists. We constantly hear about the suicides of artists or creatives at an alarming frequency.

Artists often work independently and without the kinds of structure that could provide support when one is suffering problems with their mental health.  The working conditions for artists largely go unchecked, from residencies that barely cover artists expenses or don’t consider the contextual challenges for artists from different places, decreased funding for artists etc.

While mental health issues are not unique to artists, the combination of various factors including some of those mentioned above contribute to high rates of mental illness among creative practitioners of various kinds. It will be interesting to see the data and statistics on this through the research VANSA is undertaking with Professor Thom, to contextualise the extent of the issue. The podcasts were through of as a conversational research tool to speak to practitioners and engage their experiences.

Could you please comment on the lack of support for mental health issues in the country and specifically within the arts? How do you think we as a community can go about changing this?

There is a serious issue in our country when it comes to access to healthcare and the mental health sector is greatly affected by this. Mental healthcare is inaccessible to most people in South Africa. The stigma around mental illness makes it increasingly difficult for people to seek out help.

Some of the things we discussed in relation to

Why do you believe that there is a lack of support for mental health issues in the visual arts?

I don’t think the lack of support for mental health issues is unique to the visual arts. I do however think the visual arts sector needs to come together and think of ways to address how the lack of support affects our community.

Could you please speak to religious beliefs, spirituality, conflicting notions and prejudices connected to seeking mental health treatment?

There is definitely still a lot of work to be done in terms of reducing the stigma around mental health and these factors contribute to that, but issues of access and class are also what we need to look at.

What avenues of treatment currently exist for people seeking treatment and are there affordable ways to address mental health issues? If so please tell us more and if not what can be done to address this?

It’s important for us to make clear that we aren’t experts on the issue of mental health. As practitioners ourselves we came together to discuss an issue which we have seen people we care about experience, which we’ve experienced ourselves at different points, and share those different experiences.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group offers great resources, contact details for facilities, psychologists, psychiatrists and hotlines that people can call if they need help.

Listen to Minding Our Business here.

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