Art provides cultural connection and outlet for mental health

Thursday, 24 June 2021

Fourteen years ago, an Indigenous Elder threw EPIC Assist (EPIC) participant Lisa a rock and told her to start painting to help her work through a challenging time. Painting positive affirmations on spirit rocks became a form of therapy for Lisa, who was diagnosed with Bipolar at 16 after manic depressive episodes.

“In my late teens, I felt like I had no meaning, and I couldn’t deal with myself at times. I was either bouncing off the walls or morbidly down,” said Lisa.

“Even though I thought about how lucky I was, and there were many people worse off than me, I couldn’t shake it off. I ended up withdrawing and spending a lot of time in my room so I wouldn’t drain anybody else.”

A number of river rocks that have been painted with indigenous artwork

Around 6 years ago, Lisa was involved in a four-week life-skilling and vocation program in Outback Queensland with 11 other Indigenous people from Outer North Brisbane. The program involved horsemanship, leatherwork, leadership skills, and pushed Lisa to try painting on a canvas for the first time.

“I was a bit scared at first, as the space on a canvas is a lot bigger than a little rock,” said Lisa.

She decided to incorporate the wedgetail eagle into her first canvas as it has significance for both sides of Lisa’s family, who come from Wonnarua Country in the Hunter Valley region of NSW.

“The wedgetail eagle represents family and loyalty, and it’s also a symbol that I am proud of my heritage and where I am from,” Lisa explains.

“Being fair-skinned, I do face racism within the Indigenous community, so it’s important to know where you’re from and your family’s story.”

Lisa has created many artworks since then. However, there are a few key elements that always feature.

“I love animals, so you’ll notice on all of my canvases that I incorporate animals,” said Lisa.

“I also like to incorporate a hand or footprint into my artwork, as it’s like putting a little bit of myself into the artwork.”

Indigenous artwork featuring a wedgetail eagle, handprint, tree and the word Wonnarua

Lisa also suffers from Trigeminal Neuralgia as a result of a car accident. This nerve condition causes intense pain in her face, which can come on suddenly and last for hours. Something as simple as brushing her teeth can set off an episode.

The episodes are unpredictable, sometimes occurring regularly over a number of months, other times months can pass without an episode.

Because the pain is unseen, and the condition is not widely known, Lisa has faced prejudice when trying to explain how severely it affects her. This has had a huge effect on her employment opportunities. Awareness is growing, with Trigeminal Neuralgia awareness day acknowledged on 7th October each year.

Now in her 40’s, Lisa has found it difficult to gain employment due to her conditions.

“I have found Trigeminal Neuralgia hard to explain to employers as there is a lack of understanding,” said Lisa.

“In my experience, I have also found a stigma with Bipolar where I feel people automatically judging me and my abilities when I disclose. There’s still a lot of misinformation about Bipolar in the community. These misconceptions are harmful and contribute to the challenges people with mental health conditions face.”

Lisa is working with EPIC Mental Health Consultant Alison to work towards employment.

EPIC is assisting Lisa to improve her ability to respond to life’s pressures and manage her conditions. Mental Health Consultant Alison is focusing on exploring different ways Lisa can take ownership through journaling, mindfulness apps and other services available.

In search of pain solutions, Lisa tried acupuncture and developed a firm belief in Chinese therapies as a result. She began a Bachelor of Health Science several years ago, which she is now looking to complete with EPIC’s support.

Lisa’s interests extend beyond acupuncture to Chinese herbs, cupping therapy and ear candling, and she wishes to use this passion to finish her study and open her own alternate therapies business.

EPIC team member places handprint onto indigenous artwork
Mental Health Consultant Alison contributes her ‘helping hand’

In the short term, Lisa is collaborating with EPIC’s Outer North Brisbane team to create an art piece to celebrate NAIDOC Week 2021.

The artwork will feature a platypus, which Lisa explains symbolises individuality and being strange, as well as wisdom.

“The platypus is also central to a Dreamtime story about equality where the platypus was asked to choose to be part of a group of animals, and the platypus thought about it and decided it wanted to be part of all of the groups, as no one group is better than another,” said Lisa, linking the Dreamtime story of the platypus to her own mental health challenges and the disability community.

EPIC’s team members are excited to collaborate on this special artwork, which Lisa says will be thoughtful and have meaning.

“I’m going to get the EPIC team to put their handprints as part of the artwork, so not only will they have input, but the handprints also represent the support EPIC provides as ‘helping hands,’” said Lisa.

EPIC team member places handprint onto indigenous artwork
Employment Consultant Rachael puts her hand into the collaborative artwork

For Lisa, focussing on channelling emotions into her art, and feeling connected to her culture is critical in managing her mental health.

“My Aboriginality is my sense of belonging to my family. It gives me a sense of how and where I fit in,” Lisa explains.

“Art helps quieten down my mind. It lets creativity out, and there’s a sense of achievement at the end of it.”

Her advice to others who may be going through a challenging time is to focus on the things that give you positive energy.

“Find a hobby to channel your energy into something you enjoy. Get in touch with your own self. Know your triggers, know when to take time out and have your own space to reenergise.”

If you, like Lisa, could benefit from engaging with one of EPIC’s Mental Health Consultants as part of your employment journey, contact EPIC today.

EPIC Assist proudly supports NAIDOC Week.

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