Psychological health is a very murky, glossed over aspect of OHS for arts based practitioners. Becoming an artist can be a very lonely and isolating experience. The art world can often be competitive, which may mean that at times artists set out to cut each other down. The press can also be harsh and sometimes family who have promised to “stick by and with you” find they have other things to do than prop up a loved one’s artistic career.
An Approach to Maintaining Psychological Health for Arts Based Practitioners
If you were working in a school or a business, psychological safety in the workplace would be acknowledged, monitored, regulated and enforced for the well being and clarity of all involved. Most workplaces now have counselling and employee support schemes, and many set up and monitor proactive mentoring situations.
The regulations and safety procedures to guard against such environmental risks as bullying, depression, stalking and discrimination in most occupations are enforced, and there is usually someone employed to think about safe-guarding the mental health hygiene as one essential aspect of workplace health and safety. Covert issues are routinely made overt and ways to deal with communication problems or inefficiencies in levels of emotional intelligence are met with initiatives in Personal and Professional Development. This is mandated because it is thought to be worthwhile so that everyone within the spaces where people are working is safe. Risk to the general public is minimized The actions of people are policed and the area maintained so that they all are protected from their own lack of knowledge, and from the lack of knowledge of others.
Designing a Personal Approach to a Healthy Arts Based Practice
Some of the professional development associated with keeping abreast of issues to do with bullying and emotional intelligence and the like can be expensive. Yet again, it falls back on the creative arts practitioner to be aware of, to monitor, and to maintain a psychological and mental health OHS plan.
Fortunately, a socially connected artist could design and maintain a very robust working plan. Unfortunately, like the studio audit there is need for concentrated effort at the time of designing the plan, and dedicated vigilance and maintenance on an ongoing basis. Fortunately most of the help and maintenance needed can be sought out and set up online. The rewards of maintaining such a plan can be the sustenance of a support network that ensures the artist feels supported, understood as well as connected, confident and resilient. By having a maintenance plan, artists can see themselves through the highs and lows of establishing a viable artistic practice without jeapordizing the goodwill of their loved ones.
The Risks of Working Without a Mental Health Support Strategy
Artists often work alone or in small co-ops, in art/craft studio environments or at home. “This can be difficult if the practitioner is unaware of the possible [problems], associated with their studio habits and conditions.” (NAVA OHS accessed 2012)
Articles on the NAVA website explores these issues. Some of this work is an adaption from these ideas. ..
Psychological health is also a consideration for self-employed practitioners. Often they face an uncertain financial future with no regular form of income. Unless support networks are set up with practitioners of similar interests, they may have little feedback on their artistic progress. Lacking emotional support from friends or family, they can often feel their efforts are not worthwhile. Without regular opportunities for exhibition, it is difficult for young or even established artists to remain optimistic about their future development.
Psychological health can also be affected by some of the chemicals used within common art and craft making practices. Practitioners may at times need to develop OH&S knowledge and skills to deal with communication processes beyond those they would normally need for their personal use within a studio space.
The arts based practitioner who becomes an employer or leading project manager will be liable to provide a best practice psychological and emotional environment for the employees. This could include protecting competitive artists from one another, as well as providing sensitive highly developed management and administration expertise. Luckily the training to deal with issues such as workplace bullying should be supplied by the workplace.
Acknowledging That There Will Be Risks to Artists When Working Alone
It is when an artist works alone that real trouble can occur. The artist may not be aware of the traps and dangers of lonely isolation and, in the same way that artists have in the past been handling substances that have negatively affected them, practitioners may not even realise that mental health issues are building. When one hears of a mental collapse, a session in a rehab or a creative artist suiciding, it is tempting to think that they have been drawn into a creative cycle that became too much and overwhelmed the “person” of the artist. They may have dredged up (accidentally or intentionally) issues from the past and not been able to process and resolve these issues.
When an artist works alone it is recommended that they carry out an initial audit of their workplace. This provides a starting point and fresh material from which a sensible plan of self protection can be fashioned. Once a plan is tacitly devised, a monthly emotional checkup can be put in place to be sure all is safe and secure.
Disclaimer: this process is a suggestion to cause artists to think about the issues associated with working for long periods in a studio alone. The audit is a suggested starting point and each artist must take responsibility for deciding the levels of support needed to ensure he or she maintains a safe working environment.
How to do a Psychological Hazard Check and Inventory
The first step for the artist is thinking through their characteristic working style and deciding whether any of the possible issues suggested apply.
Psychological Stressors could include
- lack of faith in own ability
- subject to negative feedback from others at a point not productive to the creativity cycle
- lack of feedback and inability to have faith in one’s own work (at the appropriate time in creative cycle)
- incapacity to complete a creative cycle with support of others
- incapacity to work long extended hours motivated by internal self-direction
- inability to work self-directedly
- lack of sense of personal responsibility
- emotional content of artwork could impact on emotional wellbeing of artist
- unmanageability (messiness)
- feelings of overwhelm
- lack of structure
- lack of a clear self-directed learning trajectory
The second step is to be crucially honest and ask could there be other stressors that are unique to yourself that should be added to the list
- Make a list of every known psychological hazard and condition you are known to have experienced. (e.g. depression, mood swings, bi polar)
- Write a description of your studio.
- Write a description of the way you work in your studio. (Do you always leave everything until the last minute and then go on overwhelm before an exhibition?)
- List how many hours you would spend alone in the studio.
- Think about your life and ask honestly, “What kinds of emotional issues could come up for me as I work through the creative process? ” (e.g. Refugee could face issues of Post Trauma)
- Are you financially stable and do you have an appropriate accounting process in place?
- Is your work political? (e.g. Is there likely to be a negative reaction to your work when it is placed in a public arena?)
- Do you expect too much or too little of yourself?
- Do you know how to handle or deflect targeted and unwarranted criticism or belittling?
Keeping Your List Online in Google Docs
As already mentioned in this set of articles – it is just as important to maintain and adjust this list every month as it is to make the first initial audit. Keep the list in a place where you will receive continual reminders about checking it once a month. Keep the list in OutLook or online in Google Docs.
- emotional and psychological stressor
- action (e.g. join and interact in an online support group)
- completion date or record ongoing nature of group membership
Prioritize the list so that the more urgent items are at the top. It is suggested that you check on the safety of your environment and the level of support you receive and give on a monthly basis. You are asked to do an audit once prioritizing the items you deem to be stressors. Define your own personal risk from the stressors and the action you need to take to ensure safety of your environment. Outline your approach to building and maintaining person resilience as an artist. Once the list is uploaded to Google docs or another online secure storage place, you have a ready reckoner handy at the same time each month.
Check the list and act on the information that it reveals.
Compile a resource folder that pertains to your own personal required level of support. For example, if you work alone and know you suffer from depression bookmark Beyond Blue and make a pledge to visit this support site on a daily basis.
Do seek medical guidance, and take your lists to your doctor in an effort to design a plan. Do act on everything promptly and address situations as you see them occur so that you do not have risky situations developing.
Invitation to Discussion About an Approach to Maintaining Psychological Health for Arts Based Practitioners
This way of working may, but is not guaranteed to alert you to possible emotional and psychological difficulties within a time frame sufficient for you to stop the symptoms escalating. If you have ideas about this topic you would like to share, or would like to write up a case study about how an artist succumbed or overcame emotional and psychological challenges within the field of the creative arts email me (Jo) on firstname.lastname@example.org and suggest a Guest Blog posting.
Alternatively write to me and I will interview you guaranteeing your copyright and ownership of this material.
Beyond Blue is a national, independent, not-for-profit organisation working to address issues associated with depression, anxiety and related disorders in Australia.