Mental health is close to my heart because I’ve lost a couple of family members to suicide in the past few years. As someone who’s passionate about art, I wondered if creative expression could help people cope with their pain.

I knew my cousin, Jason Hawkins, had worked through some of his past traumas through art. He’s an animation creator and also the sweetest person I know.

Growing up, we were always very close. From late afternoon swing rides in our aunt’s backyard to summer nights and Neapolitan ice cream, I’ve always felt protected by Jason. I never knew that he was struggling with mental health issues until last year.

“I’d experienced it all — depression, anxiety, self-harm, [being] prescribed medication, being in a mental hospital,” Jason told me.

He eventually found solace and release through his animation work.

“People really, really, really need an outlet,” he said. “We need more people in therapy, more people to experience ways of help. And that’s art therapy, friends.”

His current animations focus on mental health awareness. He devoted a recent series to our family member who died by suicide.

“That was the first time I was able to express myself and tell the stories I wanted to tell,” Jason said. “And it really made me be free with my art.”

Jason’s mother and my aunt, Rachel Martin, told me she had some advice for parents who are raising kids dealing with mental illness.

“Just be there for them and continually let them know that you’re there,” she said. “As a mother, sometimes you try to fix things and you want to give advice and you want to make it better, and when it comes to mental health, that always isn’t the best course.”

The power of expression

Research backs up the power of stable relationships combined with creative expression in improving mental health. Studies have shown that making art, especially when combined with counseling, can help people build self-awareness and a sense of self-worth, along with lowering stress.

Another local artist, Archie Green, is founder and CEO of an organization called Peel Dem Layers Back. As someone who has struggled with mental health issues, he promotes mental help advocacy through rap. He brings awareness to the stigma of mental health in the black and brown community.

“We’re supposed to be strong, especially Black people,” Green told me. “Black men are supposed to be strong. And it’s almost like from this mindset of if the revolution happens, we need all the weak links to get (to) the back of the line. So, it’s like if you show a sign of weakness, it’s like that’s vulnerability for our entire community.”

In his recent song, “Too Many Funerals,” Archie expresses how African Americans are not only dying because of police brutality and gun violence, but mental health issues.

The lyrics speak to how seeking help is seen as a weakness due to generational trauma, like slavery.

“As far as mental health is concerned, the Black community, we need to talk more about this,” Green said. “And using rap is a powerful tool. Hip-hop is what makes things cool, and so I was like, ‘I want to make mental health cool.'”

Archie Green and Jason Hawkins gave me hope that art can be one tool for overcoming generational trauma. I will advocate art to my struggling family members, so that they’re able to express their own experiences.

Our admirable stories, and our lives, do not deserve to be cut short.

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