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Art, Humanitarianism and Mental Health

As someone who has experienced the transformative power of art and creativity, I wanted to write about the connection between art, humanitarianism, and mental health. This topic is dear to me, as it was one of the underlying ideas that inspired the creation of My Petite Gallery.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and during times of crisis, it is critical to acknowledge the role art can play. Eric R. Kandel, a Nobel Prize winner and author of The Brain on Art, notes that "In major disasters, such as earthquakes, floods, and wars, art has proved to be an effective therapy for survivors, helping them express their trauma, process their grief, and regain their orientation in the world."

Art therapy programs are a powerful way to promote wellness and healing through creative expression. They can alleviate the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and trauma common in crisis-affected populations. I have witnessed firsthand the effectiveness of art therapy in IDP/refugee camps, where it helped children and adults cope with displacement and loss while fostering community and promoting intercultural exchange. In Darfur, art was a key component of the child-friendly spaces I ran in Nyertiti camps, while in Ukraine, art sessions gave Ukrainian children space to heal.

But art therapy is not limited to those affected by humanitarian crises. Arts-based programs can also support the mental health and well-being of humanitarian workers, providing a means of self-expression and emotional support. By promoting creative expression and connection with others, such programs help build resilience and facilitate coping and recovery. As Kandel notes, "Art offers a different way to see things. It shifts our perspective and alters our mood – not by making us forget, but rather by heightening our awareness of our own inner resources."

Beyond therapeutic benefits, creative expression is a powerful means of social justice and advocacy. Art can tell the stories of marginalized communities and raise awareness of issues related to mental health and social justice. For example, (upcoming collaborator) Jahan Ara Rafi's artwork strongly advocates for women’s rights in Afghanistan while raising awareness of their current situation and the discrimination they face under the Taliban-led regime. Earlier this year, the humanitarian community in Haiti collaborated with three artists, Silva Jean Francisco, Shneider Léon Hilaire, and Oliga, to shed light on Haitians’ daily lives, a brilliant use of art to advocate for people in need.

The Displaced, Acrylic on Canvas. Copyright: Shneider Léon Hilaire

We all have a role to play in promoting mental health and humanitarian causes. One way to help is by supporting My Petite Gallery, which donates part of its proceeds to humanitarian projects. By purchasing art, you contribute to important social justice and advocacy efforts, support the creative expression and well-being of others, and promote mental health. Let's come together through creativity to make a difference—share your story about art, mental health, and humanitarianism with us.

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