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“If students have ideas about how we can create dialogue around mental health issues­ — we want to support them.” —Joseph Behen, Executive Director, Wellness Center

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SAIC responds to depression among students

SAIC is not the least bit bashful when it comes to its alumni list or its reputation as “the most influential art school in the country.”

The school is not quite as boastful about the prevalence of mental illness among students, which is high compared to statistics at more traditional academic institutions.

Earlier this month, The Chronicle of Higher Education published “Art Students’ Mental Health: A Complicated Picture,” by Daniel Grant. The article pointed to SAIC’s particularly high percentage of students who experience mental illness: 10-15%. Everyone knows the stereotype of the starving, depressed artist, but Grant points out that the rate of mental illness in art schools is not entirely a result of the creative minds that fill them. It is also the inherently stressful nature of an arts education. Six hour classes, the pressure to produce original and stimulating works, and the exposure of personal issues that practicing artists must deal with, all contribute to what Martha Cedarhold, the director of Pratt Institute’s Counseling Center, calls a “traumatizing experience.”

The Healthy Minds Study, conducted in 2009 as a collaboration between the University of Michigan School Of Public Health, the multidisciplinary University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center, and the Center for Student Studies in Ann Arbor, Mi., showed that SAIC’s rate of mental illness far exceeds the national sample.

It was reported that 8% of SAIC students have been diagnosed with major depression, with the national sample only registering at 4%. The study showed that 1% of the national sample had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, while 5% of SAIC students suffer from it.

“That’s a huge number,” said Joseph Behen in an interview with F. Behen is the executive director of the Wellness Center at SAIC and he is striving to heighten awareness of their services. Many students may not know that their tuition grants them 16 therapy sessions, free of charge, through the counseling services at the Wellness Center (located on the 13th floor of the 116 Michigan building.) The school offers many mental health services to students, but Behen wants to encourage students to support each other on these issues as well.

Anna Festa and Lauren Goldstein are doing just that. Female students at SAIC may have noticed some striking advertisements placed in bathroom stalls. “I always gave him the benefit of the doubt instead of listening to myself,” reads one headline, which is paired with a block cut self-portrait of one of the girls.

The canvas posters advertise SAIC’s counseling services to help deal with domestic abuse with delicately strung tags that provide a phone number for the Wellness Center. “We were trying to create an experience, where someone is staring at you right in the face saying, ‘This is happening,’ as well as, ‘You can get help if you need it,’” said Goldstein.

These posters were part of an Arts Education class and were inspired by Goldstein and Festa’s shared experiences with abuse. Joseph Behen was delighted when the girls approached him about a partnership with the Wellness Center for their project.

The Touched by Fire program is another example of students using artwork as a means of mental illness awareness and treatment. When SAIC student Rebecca Burghardt committed suicide in the mid-90s, her father John Burghardt partnered with the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario to establish Touched by Fire, an annual art show that celebrates artists with mood disorders, and showcases the work that reflects their struggles.

Ten students from SAIC featured their work at this year’s show, held on Thanksgiving day in Ontario. Artists are asked to present one piece of work, accompanied by an artist’s statement that describes their connection to mental illness. Kayla Parker, one of the participating artists, describes her depression and anxiety as driving forces behind her work, which “when combined with the innate creativity I already possess” will allow her to find success as a fine artist.

Behen attended Touched by Fire this year to support the SAIC students showing work. “When artists are willing to bring out a statement describing how they struggled with a condition, it can be pretty powerful,” said Behen. He hopes that members of the SAIC community will continue to pursue projects that bring light to mental illness.

From Lord Byron to Vincent Van Gogh to Jackson Pollock, history has provided countless examples of how mental illness can fuel creativity. Art is a powerful tool in self-discovery, and Behen advocates for an emotionally and mentally healthy community at SAIC. He emphasized that “if students have ideas about how we can create dialogue around mental health issues — we want to support them.”

Counseling Services at SAIC
Hours: M-F, 9 am – 1pm, 2 – 4:30 pm
Phone: (312) 499-4271
Email: [email protected]
Address: 13th floor
116 S Michigan Ave.

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