SAN DIEGO — In the Psych Congress keynote address, artist Candy Chang discussed how her public art experiment offered individuals a platform to come together in communities around the world.
“We have a fundamental, human need to connect with others. Today, more people live close together in cities than ever before, yet social isolation is on the rise,” Chang said in her presentation. “Many researchers are ringing the alarm saying that the loneliness epidemic is becoming the biggest threat to our public health.”
Public spaces are shared spaces that bind people together as a community; they can play an important role in health and how people see one another, but there are many barriers to opening up in a meaningful way, according to Chang.
Dealing with her own grief and depression due to loss of loved one, Chang said that she found clarity by thinking of death. In tribute, she and friends painted an abandoned house in her neighborhood and stenciled “Before I die I want to” so anyone in her community could reflect upon death and life and share their personal aspirations.
“I understood my neighbors in new and enlightening ways and I think most importantly to me at that time was that I saw so clearly that I wasn’t alone as I was trying to make sense of my life,” Chang said. “This neglected space became an intimate one where I grew close to the people around me for the first time in a long time.”
Chang said that the project changed her sadness, that it helped her to see her inner world reflected out in the public space. She made a website to help other communities make their own “Before I die” walls, and now there are more than 5,000 walls in more than 75 countries.
Each wall shows a unique snapshot of the community’s shared anxieties, hopes and struggles, but also these walls “show just how much we are the same,” Chang said.
The same big themes emerged around the world: to do something meaningful, to love and be loved, to travel the world, to find inner peace and to see loved ones prosper.
Although talking about death is often discouraged, Chang said that regularly contemplating death can help restore perspective and help people find what’s meaningful to them.
She also spoke of the stigma around suicide, which can make people feel alone and discourage those who need help the most.
“When we develop our own comfort talking about grief and death, we can begin to change the culture around it. The more that we can normalize discussion about it, the more we can be prepared and encouraged to share our struggles and experiences to help one another.”
Chang said that politics and media divide us, and people are becoming more stressed, anxious and socially isolated, but thinking about how people can open up in their communities can help other people feel less alone.
“I feel like that’s the greatest gift of all. Hearing other people’s experiences is what saved me in some of my toughest times. Your struggles can be turned into your greatest service to others,” Chang said. – by Savannah Demko
Chang, C. Eric C. Arauz Memorial Keynote Address: We all have mental health issues: Our inner worlds in public. Presented at: Psych Congress; Oct. 3-6, 2019; San Diego.
Disclosure: Healio Psychiatry was unable to confirm any relevant financial disclosures at the time of publication.