By Shikha Sreenivas
Mental health is often ignored because it isn’t visible, unlike a bleeding arm or a broken bone. It is also difficult to understand someone else’s mental health—it is hard to accept that, perhaps, their anxiety is much more challenging than ours.
This is what Sonaksha Iyengar’s series #AtoZofMentalHealth tries to do. A 22-year-old Bangalore-based artist, Iyengar is delving into mental health on Instagram as a part of the #36DaysofType challenge, and her own private challenge to produce art every day. The series looks to create conversations and spread awareness about mental illness, something that is still stigmatised today. The writer, illustrator, book and graphic designer also includes a short description with each of her illustrations, which are empowering and informative.
Iyengar started this series because she thought it was “time to have honest conversations with each other about the importance of mental health” and she used art because she realised its meditative properties.
Why did you start the #AtoZofMentalHealth series?
Often, since mental illnesses and disorders are invisible, they are not acknowledged, and are sometimes even ridiculed. After having numerous conversations with friends about the stigma associated with it and facing difficulties with the way people approach the subject, I really wanted to create something tangible to help start a conversation.
Sometimes using words can be hard to describe the chaos that the brain feels—whether it is a bundle of emotions or a mental disorder. The hope is that everyone knows
that they are not alone and that their struggles are acknowledged.
Why art to understand mental illness?
Art is a daily practice for me and I began to realise how meditative it is. I spend at least a few minutes every day drawing or painting, and during that time nothing else matters.
A lot of times these illustrations were about my own mental health or things I saw around me. So for a long time, I’ve been thinking about using art as a medium to talk about mental health and I wanted to do it in a way that would help highlight a few things that most of us don’t know about. Hence, the
decision to start with #AtoZofMentalHealth.
The letters of the alphabet are one of the first things we are taught in school, so I wanted to make that the first step of my project. Art doesn’t judge, people do. It gives the viewer a chance to respond in a way that is meaningful to them, which is so important.
What is your process with each illustration?
I spend time reading various forums on mental health, understanding the discussions people have and experiences they share and finally narrow them down based on issues that I want to address immediately. Some of them are
well known but also end up being on the receiving end of a lot of myths that need to be busted, and some are disorders that people aren’t aware of. The hope is that [viewers] won’t dismiss it the next time they hear of it.
What are the problems with how we perceive mental health?
Everyone struggles with their mental health at some point in their lives; the struggle may vary in terms of intensity—whether it is with emotions, thoughts, illnesses and disorders. But when it comes to mental disorders and illnesses, people behave in unacceptable ways by ostracising the person or making fun of them rather than providing a space for them to feel comfortable. We really need to stop social exclusion and create safe spaces where everyone can engage in conversations.
Another huge problem is that people don’t consciously think about mental health. It is really important to care for your mental health, just as you would for your physical health. But somehow when it comes to mental health, we turn away.
If we started looking after our own mental health, we would definitely be more sensitive to the way others are approaching theirs too. A lot of times the harshness with which people address anyone struggling with their mental health stems out of the stigma associated with it, and the lack of information or knowledge about it.