The Heart of Art is How We Respond

Authored By: dies0044 04/26/2021

This past fall, UMR’s commitment to collaboration and student engagement was on full display in Dr. Angie Mejia and Yuko Taniguchi's Sociology 3721: Society and Mental Health- An Intersectional Approach and A Lived Experience. In a unique and engaging course developed between Dr. Mejia and Professor Yuko Taniguchi, students were challenged to look at mental health experiences in new ways, through reading lived experiences of mental health and using creative response methods. These creative methods culminated in the creation of an original work of art by UMR alumna and artist, Nitya Chandiramani ‘17.

While many courses on mental health exclusively use academic texts and writing, Dr. Mejia thoughtfully curated a syllabus using memoirs written as personal experiences of living with mental health conditions. Dr. Mejia says, “In the creation of this class and coursework, I was very intentional on centering the stories and experiences of people of color. I wanted to introduce the students to stories and ideas that they aren’t going to be taught anywhere else—to center those experiences and histories of people of color and their experiences receiving mental health services.” But she didn’t stop there. In collaboration with co-instructor for the course, Prof. Yuko Taniguchi, they created Wednesday Workshops, where Prof. Taniguchi led the students in generating creative responses to the texts, through various artistic means. She explains, “The creative process isn’t just reading, it’s how we respond to it. This response allows us to see from different perspectives and absorb the information in another way.”

For students whose focus of study is Health Sciences, delving into creative methods and giving personal responses was at first an uncomfortable prospect. Prof. Taniguchi says, “A lot of the students at the beginning were terrified, because we were asking them to share, and there is inherent vulnerability in sharing.” Danniella Balangoy, who will be graduating May 2021 with a Bachelor of Science in Health Sciences degree and plans to pursue a career in Public Health, explains her first thoughts about the creative components of the coursework: “My initial reaction was pure hesitation. I believe our scientific-based curriculum did not allow us to flip the script and talk about our own experiences. The introspection in this project was different.” 

She continues, “This integrated approach challenged my scientific-reasoning-based brain, in that I had to comprehend the text, but I also had to feel it and express that on paper. Often in science there is a disconnect between a textbook and real experiences, and making us understand artistically that these were not just stories—these were lived experiences—made the class even more valuable.”

For Dr. Mejia, the value of creative responses is an important means of influencing how mental health is handled in the clinical setting. “These creative exercises gave them a way to get out of their very analytical thinking and explore how people come to the clinical space to tell you about their experiences. What they will hear in this space is not going to sound like a symptoms’ list on the DSM-5. Prof. Taniguchi and I had them think about and describe different feelings and situations (isolation, loneliness, irritability) using words and other creative methods. So when they see a patient in the clinical setting, they can understand more what the patient is trying to describe to them. The skills we teach them will help them when they talk to their patients. A portion of our students by the 3rd or 4th year are already working in the field, many in the clinical setting, so much of this is immediately applicable. It also helps them to bring to class real examples and applications of what we are talking about and trying to teach.”

Dr. Mejia’s course development went a step further, leading the way in vulnerability, by including her own writing as one of the readings. An article that was part of Dr. Mejia’s PhD dissertation entitled, “Joven, Extranjera, y Deprimida en América: Ruminations of an Immigrant to Prozac Nation'' was used, as it explored Dr. Mejia’s personal experience as an immigrant battling a mental health condition and being medicalized as a woman of color at a young age. This flipping of the traditional academic script was certainly a risk. “Most academics would never use their own writings as part of the assigned curriculum, especially writings about being medicalized and battling depression.” But Dr. Mejia’s approach is one of practicing what she preaches. UMR’s embracing of this life focus is a big part of what drew her to join the faculty in Rochester. As the Civic Engagement Professor, Dr. Mejia explains, “The opportunity to train future health care professionals, offering them an understanding of the interconnectedness of community, health and social justice—something that I teach, preach and live by—was really important to me.” UMR welcomed that. “I teach antiracism with arts-based pedagogies. I teach community-based research using critical feminisms of color theory and praxis. I’m a Woman of Color with multiple disabilities, including major depressive disorder. This is who I am, and influences how I teach.” 

“I’ve been able to be very experimental in what I teach and what I bring, and I think students have found a lot of value in that. So, [this course] was a gamble. Teaching mental health during COVID-19, with a heavy focus on antiracism, to a primarily white student body is a risk. But it was a good risk. And the students were engaged. They participated, they had their cameras on. The creative response portion of the class became a way that they could interact with each other.”

After reading “Joven, Extranjera, y Deprimida en América: Ruminations of an Immigrant to Prozac Nation,” Prof. Taniguchi gave the class seven minutes to illustrate a response. The time limit set by Prof. Taniguchi was intentional. “The immediacy of the drawing response was important because it required the students to respond without thinking too much or letting intimidation get in the way.” Danniella says, “For my piece, I had a tiny human being and a ginormous pill bottle that hindered the human’s ability to move forward. The irony was that the prescription hindered any form of progression. The major themes that I identified were: frustration, constantly being in a trance due to always trying a new medication, maladaptive, silenced by mediation to express any true emotion, and pain.”

The class drawings immediately impressed both Dr. Mejia and Prof. Taniguchi. “The drawings the students created were very powerful and I was really moved by them. They got the socio-structural elements connected to mental health and medicalization that I communicated in my writing. They understood the overall message of  mental health as a socio-cultural as well as psycho social condition,” says Dr. Mejia. 

Seeing the success of the student’s response sparked another idea for Prof. Taniguchi: reaching out to a former student turned close friend, Nitya Chandiramani. “Nitya is a creative being, and I found myself wondering what she would create.” 

Nitya says, “When Yuko reached out to me with this opportunity, she asked that I read Dr. Mejia's paper, review the students' drawings and create a piece based on my interpretation of both the paper and drawings. She shared a powerful statement with me that is the perfect representation of how I approached this piece: ‘The heart of art is how we respond’ and that's exactly what I did. I created a piece based on what the paper and drawings made me think and feel both logically and emotionally.”

UMR alumna and artist, Nitya Chandiramani ‘17 documents her artistic process.

And create, she did. Using her skills as a self-taught acrylics artist, Nitya created an original work of art, which she presented to Dr. Mejia and the class at the end of the semester. The result was surprising in the best possible way for Dr. Mejia, even moving her to tears. “I have it hanging right here in my house. I looked at it and said, ‘You captured all of it in one art piece! You have done it; it’s this synthesis, and all of these layers that you were able to capture in your art. I’m in awe.’ It was a huge surprise for me! And that is why art is amazing; you don’t need words. She presented it to Yuko and me in class, and I cried in class.” 

“The students thought it was so great. They were included in something that was collective. Mental health is very individual and it’s isolating, but this was a collective project.” Danniella agrees. “It was nice to see Nitya create a piece that summarized the course through an artistic lens. Her piece symbolized the bent and curvy ways that a mental health journey can be for people.”

It is through this chain of responding, Prof. Taniguchi explains, that we find the true depth of art.

A quote by Mary Oliver was central in the creation of SOC 3721: “Instructions for living a life. Pay Attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. Tell it again. Tell it again. Tell it again.”

And so, the chain of responding continues, here, to this story, as we tell it again.