The global Covid-19 pandemic has had significant impacts on our mental health. A survey by the United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics between May and June 2020 (view the latest statistics here) indicates that almost one in five adults (19.2%) were likely to be experiencing some form of depression during the pandemic. This is an alarming figure.
Depression is the most common form of mental illness. The symptoms may be varied for each sufferer, but the common ones being: the lack of motivation for daily activities, continuously low mood, feeling sad and tearful, having low self-esteem, feeling anxious, unable to concentrate, having suicidal thoughts, having unexplained lurgies, and withdrawing from social activities, among others.
Depression as a chronic disease may not be healed completely, but there are ways to reduce the symptoms. One of them is by engaging in creative activities. Creativity as a means to cope with depression or mental illness, in general, has been increasingly popular in the West.
In Scotland where I reside, there have been art and writing workshops specifically for improving mental wellbeing, which I have personally benefited from as a sufferer of mental illness.
I was working on my second novel, The Mouse Deer Kingdom when my second bout (the first was after my father’s death seven years before) of depression struck following the passing of my mother.
For months, I withdrew into a hibernation state and lost the motivation to do anything. I couldn’t make myself sit at the desk and write as my body was heavy with lurgies and my mind couldn’t concentrate. My agent had to negotiate for a new deadline with the publisher then and again.
After my psychotic episode in 2018, my mind wasn’t functioning properly. I had problems with writing, reading, and speaking. I thought I would never be able to write again. The thought scared me. I felt like an invalid, useless. I had loved writing since a child. If I couldn’t write, what use was I?
That thought made me even more depressed.
As a writer who has been living with depression for the past eighteen years, my experience informs me that creative activities (in my case, writing) may help to reduce the symptoms of depression in two ways.
First of all, it provides a platform for a depressive to release their feelings and emotions that have been suppressed.
Secondly, by focusing on the activities – drawing, painting, writing, doing handicrafts, for example – the sufferer will free their minds from unwanted thoughts, which are usually negative.
Drawing from personal experience, I remember spending days feeling sad and crying uncontrollably, driven by the feeling of abandonment and being unloved (which are common among the depressives).
Anger, too, ensued. After weeping for some time and feeling extremely anxious, I finally resorted to picking up a pen and doodled on my notebook. I wrote down my thoughts exactly as they were, without trying to make the sentences perfect. As I scribbled on, I released the pain, the sadness, and the anger in me.
By doing so, I gradually began to dwell inside me and create prose that reflected my state of mind. Some of these writing later appeared in the form of fiction, in which my feelings and emotions were manifested through the characters; others, though, were raw, direct expressions of my experiences.
The process of writing them has been cathartic. It has helped me to get through the days. The writing produced has also helped others – my friends and family, and my psychiatrist – to understand me better.
This kind of therapeutic function applies to doing arts and crafts, too. The sketches, brushstrokes, and colours, for example, are the artistic expressions of feelings and emotions by the creators.
All that has been suppressed within the individual is released through the chosen medium: the pen, the brush, the charcoal, and the colours, to name a few. The outcome is creative work that will touch people’s hearts. Being able to produce something will also bring a sense of achievement, which is important for a depressive who generally has low self-esteem.
In the second instance, creative activities help to calm a person’s mind. When we are engaged in a creative activity, we put our attention on the work at hand. It helps to stop the mind from wandering through past occasions and future worries.
A depressive is easily drawn to negative thoughts and lack of concentration. When a person is focused on their creative work, they are in the present. It is like in the state of meditation; but instead of paying attention to our breaths, we immerse ourselves fully in the artwork or writing.
The effects are similar. In that state, the mind is free.
As the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle points out, ‘In the present, there’s no problems and no worries.’ We feel guilty and unhappy about past happenings, and anxious and worried about future events that are yet to come.
These are the thoughts that are troubling most of us, and it is even worse for a depressive. Through creative activities, one can learn to live in the present. This will not happen overnight, of course, as it requires constant practice. By doing so, the mind is being trained to be cleared of thoughts, so that the mind-voice will gradually become less troubling and, hopefully, eventually subside.
One of the biggest problems faced by persons with mental illness, especially the depressives, is that there are still many people out there who do not recognise mental illness as a form of illness.
The symptoms of depression, such as unexplained lurgies and the lack of motivation to assume daily activities, are often dismissed as laziness. The last thing a depressive wants to hear is to be asked to ‘get a grip’ and ‘get on with your life.’
They simply can’t. That is why raising mental awareness among the public is so important.
More emphasis should be given to art and writing therapies in view of their benefits. While they now have their significant places in the West, I hope more could be done in the East to encourage and promote using creativity as a means for a depressive to help reduce their symptoms.
My days are quite different from most writers, I guess, as I am still recovering from the acute psychotic episode three years ago, during which I totally lost my mind.
For someone with mental health issues, every day is a struggle. I try to establish a routine, as advised by my psychiatrist. With the help of the Glasgow Association for Mental Health (GAMH), I volunteer at a community allotment for persons recovering from mental illness every Monday.
The organisation also arranges for me to go cycling and play tennis during the week. Every Thursday I attend a Buddhist study group, which has been moved online since the pandemic began.
I also find time to be in nature, going to the woods or seaside.
In between these activities, I try to write a little bit at a time when I am able to. I understand that the recovery needs time, and I always count myself lucky that I can still write, despite being slow.
Suria Tei’s latest book – Unspoken – is a memoir of living with mental illness where she delves into the roots of her chronic depression and psychosis, eventually finding answers in her formative years growing up in a conventional Malaysian Chinese family.
From grief to depression, from psychosis to catharsis, from East to West, Tei shares her past encounters and insights into life with unflinching honesty. Unspoken is a journey of self-discovery and understanding how the past conditions our present.
Cover image supplied by Suria Tei.