Artworks can express powerful statements about mental health, while social media allow people to create a community. What happens when the two interlink? This blog examines a study on how people respond to Instagram artwork used to promote mental health awareness.
Photo-based social network sites, such as Instagram, open a platform to large audiences, enhance the sense of community, and provide the freedom to express emotions, symptoms of mental illness, and ways of coping. The benefits of online communities for mental health have been previously discussed by people with lived experience (Giorgis, 2015) and by academic authors. Nasland et al. (2016) describe how people turn to social media to seek advice and become part of a group. Cassidy (2011) argues that online communities open “collaborative mental health practice” in rural areas.
A recent paper by Griffith et al. (2021) expands this topic by considering the effects of visual art on mental health, in the context of Instagram posts. The authors consider how art images posted on social media advocate social justice and build empathy and awareness for people who are experiencing mental illness. They also explore how the audience responds to Instagram posts which include images of artworks that are used to promote mental health awareness.
The authors examined 1,000 public Instagram art posts, including images, text captions, likes, and comments.
The images were separated and coded into 9 different subsets of media (such as painting, drawing, photograph, sculpture, jewellery) and 3 different styles (representational, nonrepresentational, and functional). The text captions accompanying the art images were analysed and assessed, according to the numbers of ‘likes’, tagged mental health conditions, and the comments.
The authors reported that they focused their work on Instagram because, as a photo-based social network site, it offers “accessible community resources, photo editing tools, and large audiences” (Griffith et al, 2021: 67). However, they do not explain the rationale for not assessing data from a variety of other online platforms.
Posts were selected using 10 common hashtags, including a mental health condition and a reference to art, including #DepressionArt, #AnxietyArt, #BpdArt, #BipolarArtist, #SchizoArt, and #SuicideArt. These hashtags were chosen from psychiatric diagnoses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders- Fifth Edition (DSM-5), whilst suicidality was included as comorbidity. These conditions were also selected because they appear frequently in Instagram posts.
The correlation between the artwork image, accompanying text, the hashtags included in the post, comments from the online community, and the popularity of the posts, were evaluated.
The effects of artworks posted on Instagram were assessed by the type of artwork shown in the photo, as well as the number of reactions (‘likes’ and comments) given to a post.
Results show that figurative art (which looks like what it represents – say, a picture of a flower, which looks like a flower) was the most popular and common art medium posted on Instagram, accompanied by hashtags about mental health. These images were accompanied by the artists’ descriptions of their own personal experiences and emotions.
Interestingly, art objects that can be worn or used (such as a piece of jewellery or a bowl) were a minority style seen on the posts discussed here (total 4.6% of the 1,000 posts), but they were the most popular posts and gained the highest community response (see Fig. 4, Griffith et al. 2021: 72).
The analysis aimed to show insights about different factors in these posts on Instagram: the types of artworks displayed, the text captions, the consequent effects on people’s mental health, and building a community online.
This paper argues that artists use “informational and commercial strategies” to engage and work with online communities, and to promote mental health awareness. They do this in verbal and nonverbal ways – with the messages represented visually, in their artworks, and in the accompanying text captions. The authors also conclude that art posts in photo-based social media promote mental health awareness in different ways.
The authors argue that a minority number of artists, particularly those including the tag of #SoberArtist, are using “a more commercial strategy to promote mental health awareness online”. These artists are using the text accompanying their images, not just to express mental health or illness, but to also sell their artworks. Here we see a different perspective; not only to express talent and skill (which does not depend on struggles or illness) but to also earn income.
The authors conclude:
Instagram offers easily accessible outlets for artists and community advocates to share thought-provoking imagery directly with a wide online audience.
Strengths and limitations
This is a focused piece of scientific analysis about posting art images relating to mental health on social media. It is easy to read and is well illustrated (with images, graphs, tables). The Appendix (available here) shows 6 very powerful images, which are a great addition to the text.
One limitation of the article is when the authors use the terms “mental health” and “mental illness” interchangeably. They are not defined or separated. The argument presents artists’ expressions of mental illness (tagging particular mental illnesses, such as #DepressionArt or #BpdArt). However, this is also discussed in the paper in relation to spreading awareness of mental health in the online community. It is not clear what the distinction between health and illness is.
The analysis talks about the tangible effects of art in the context of mental illness (and health). We see quotes from the posts on Instagram which is interesting. Nonetheless, I would want to hear more about how the process of making art and posting online affects these artists. Including artists’ voices would furnish the analysis further.
The chosen mental illnesses in focus from this study are not exhaustive and could be expanded. It would be good to study different types of artworks (not just visual), such as music, sound, performance. The study is confined to looking at posts on Instagram. It raises its own limitation, suggesting that future work should assess “larger samples of artwork posts at multiple timepoints on Instagram and other photo-based social media platforms”.
I am encouraged to see the article’s reference to Vollmer’s (2018) thesis, which discusses art-making as nonverbal. Here, we consider what happens when art becomes a public space; nonverbal creative expression is empowering, when exhibiting artworks opens opportunities for self-advocacy and social engagement. This practice can change the narrative of mental illness, and open many opportunities for both the artist and the public who witness this art.
Implications for practice
The study begins to approach the potentially revolutionary effects of making, displaying, and engaging with art, but these ideas could be taken further. It is important to compare and contrast the effects of displaying artwork on social media and in a physical space, such as in a gallery. If you post images on Instagram, you can reach an instant, massive audience. It is immediately accessible and shareable, although in an ephemeral way. If you display images in a gallery, it is harder to see, but there is perhaps a bigger e/affect and consequence in person.
In my experience of posting my paintings on Instagram, in relation to mental health, I have more reactions when I include more hashtags in the text. Hence, posting my art on Instagram is a good way to publicise and portray a powerful and dynamic message. My painting practice sustains and enhances my “#recovery” and “#mentalhealth”. Showing what I create to the online community is connective and empowering.
Statement of interests
Griffith F, Stein C, Hoag J, Gay K (2021) ‘#MentalHealthArt: How Instagram artists promote mental health awareness online’, Public Health 2021 194 67-74.
Cassidy, L (2011) Online Communities of Practice to Support Collaborative Mental Health Practice in Rural Areas. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 32:2, 98-107, DOI: 10.3109/01612840.2010.535648
Giorgis, H (2015) ‘When the mental health system failed me, online communities became my coping mechanisms’. The Guardian, 13/07/15.
Hetrick S (2018) ‘Social media: good and bad experiences and the impact on depression’. National Elf Service.
Naslund, J, Aschbrenner, K, Marsch, L, & Bartels, S. (2016). The future of mental health care: Peer-to-peer support and social media. Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, 25(2), 113-122.
Tan M (2020) ‘Social media use and depression in adolescence: what we (don’t) know so far’ National Elf Service.
Vollmer E (2018) “Painting a New Narrative: Facilitating the Social Integration and Personal Empowerment of Schizophrenic Individuals Through Art”. Thesis. https://doi.org/10.15760/honors.651