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How the arts can help youths talk about mental health

Many youths have many thoughts or queries about mental health, but we are unsure how to begin the conversation.

How the arts can help youths talk about mental health

The poetic nature of the arts helps us articulate the often “indescribable” experiences of our mental states.

Many youths have many thoughts or queries about mental health, but we are unsure how to begin the conversation.

This difficulty in opening up about mental health is often caused by the stigma that surrounds the topic.

Recently, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong noted that one in five young people said their mental well-being was poor or very poor last year, according to a survey conducted by the National Youth Council.

In another survey by government feedback unit Reach, it was revealed that youths aged 13 to 30 felt uncomfortable seeking help for their mental well-being due to social and professional stigma.

How, or where, can we begin a deep and meaningful conversation about the mental health of our youths?

I posit that we can look to the arts to tackle the stigma behind mental health.

Not all art begins with the specific objective of engaging in such conversations, but all art harnesses the potential to extend greater understanding of particular issues or conditions.

Here, I unpack three ways the arts can help youths better approach and understand mental health discourses.


Many artworks are structured by stories and narratives, thereby allowing us to empathise with lived experiences.

Aside from understanding the scientific or statistical details of mental health conditions, destigmatising mental health issues is also about understanding the lived experience of those who live with mental health conditions.

Regardless of its various forms, art is primarily a story-telling convention, which then allows us to tell stories of mental health conditions in an effort to facilitate such understanding.

Noise and Cloud and Us, a photographic documentation of an artist’s sister who lives with severe mental illness, is a good example.

The photography exhibition, presented at Objectifs, a visual arts space in Middle Road, last year, zooms in on just one person’s story. Mixing photographs of the individual’s daily routine and close-up shots of the environment, the viewer feels as though they have been invited to journey through a day of someone living with a mental health condition.

Instead of telling us factually what a mental health condition is, the photographs suggest what it means to be in that position.

As viewers attempt to step into the shoes of the individual, they realise how anybody could also find themselves in this position.


The poetic nature of the arts helps us articulate the often “indescribable” experiences of our mental states.

Psychologists and medical anthropologists have acknowledged that metaphors can help enhance understanding of mental health. Sayings such as “winning a battle against depression,” or “negative thoughts come and go like waves” are means that help us articulate mental health conditions.

In many art forms, stories are not just told or written with words alone, but embodied in its presentation structure, design elements or performance.

Artistic expressions are able to use symbols, metaphors or motifs to articulate realities of our mental health that words alone cannot describe.

For instance, Land of Not Knowing is an experimental documentary that recounts four individuals’ experiences in overcoming their suicidal attempts and ideations.

On top of using real, actual audio recordings from their interviews, the film also accompanies the interview footage with surreal (or unreal) images of dreamy/ nightmarish environments and perspectives.

By juxtaposing real sounds and surreal visuals, the film creatively expresses how many individuals going through suicidal ideations may feel that their experience is sometimes surreal, such as how they feel they are out of their body or having little control over their actions —  a sensation that words cannot adequately describe.

The symbolic nature of the film helps those who find themselves in a similar position feel acknowledged that their suicidal tendencies are not within their control.

And for those who are more distant from the issue, it enables them to empathise more deeply with the condition, thus creating a shared understanding of such complex mental states.


With careful and sensitive planning, an artistic experience can create a safe space for its audience to engage in the topic.

When we are opening up about our mental health, we are often unsure of how other people in the shared space understand our perspectives.

Many artworks allow the audience to participate in the conversation with a safe distance.

As viewers delve into the world of the story, they find themselves relating the story to themselves. In so doing, they also self-reflect on their habitual thoughts or assumptions, without feeling confronted or forced to do so.

One example is Girl in the White Sand Box — a participatory theatre piece Drama Box created for adolescents.

In a participatory segment, the young audience is invited to interact with the protagonist who was struggling with suicidal thoughts, using a convention commonly known as “hot-seating” in drama and literature education.

Even though the audience members were suggesting how the protagonist could seek support and help, they were simultaneously reflecting on how they themselves could support their peers, or even take these steps for themselves, should a situation in future require.

Doing so is different from asking the audience to simply imagine a situation where they themselves need to seek help.

When the audience is processing someone else’s circumstances within a fictional setting, they are given the room and flexibility to step out of the characters’ world and distance themselves, should the process of imagination become too triggering.

This distance between the fictional world and the audience’s own private lives is the key element that provides a safe space for the audience, which can really facilitate young audiences to approach a topic that may be potentially uncomfortable.

In short, many artistic expressions can empower people to dialogue difficult themes, through stories and metaphors, within a built safe space.

And with the youths, the challenge is often to approach mental health conversations sensitively and carefully, but not sacrificing depth for fear of mishandling the topic.

As philosopher of arts Alain de Botton would put it, “art has the power to extend our capacities beyond those that nature has originally endowed us with. Art compensates us for certain inborn weaknesses, in this case of the mind rather than the body, weaknesses that we can refer to as psychological frailties.”

I strongly encourage ministries, schools and organisations to look to the arts to enable further conversations about mental health amongst the youths.

In time to come, I hope that youths will not feel uncomfortable to seek help when facing an uncertain situation, as we will have gathered enough understanding to talk about it, with empathy and care.

No doubt it takes a community to make positive change, but let us not forget that we can create arts that can guide us there, one step at a time.



Chng Yi Kai is a resident artist at theatre company Drama Box.

Related topics

mental health arts Youth

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