Hope can be found - a brushstroke at a time

Painting and paint brushes. Getty Images/Alistair Berg
Photo: Getty Images/Alistair Berg
Four years ago, I was a skinny, struggling teenager in my first year of university. I hated what I was studying, where I was living, and who I was as a person.

I was floundering in an ocean of responsibilities, late nights, disordered eating, cramming and expectations. And then I rediscovered painting. Skipping a chemistry lecture one afternoon, I headed to the stationery store, and bought a cheap canvas and a set of acrylics.

With every brush stroke, I felt lighter and happier. Art didn't ''cure'' me of my depression, nor did it alleviate all my anxiety. It did however give me something to live for, something to invest my time, energy and soul into.

To this end, in June of this year I decided to hold an art exhibition to raise money for Life Matters Suicide Prevention Trust. Initially, I thought I'd feature my own work only. Then I remembered how ridiculously talented my friends were, so I approached them.

Then I decided to go the whole way and invite all the New Zealand artists I could find. Looking back now, it was awfully presumptuous of me, a simple Scarfie and unknown artist to approach big names like Ewan McDougall, Michel Tuffery, Liz Abbott, Lorraine Rastorfer and Karen Sewell for works, but I'm glad I did it. One hundred and twenty-eight artworks later, these artists and I have created something beautiful, hopeful and life-saving.

For this exhibition isn't just about showcasing the work of local artists. It's about saving lives. In 2017, 606 people died by suicide in our country, almost double the number of deaths by car accidents. For every person who dies by suicide, an average of 100 people are affected.

At Life Matters Suicide Prevention Trust we aim for zero suicide in the healthcare system, so we advocate for quality identification, response and treatment for people at risk. The team at Life Matters understands the shock, devastation and severe trauma experienced during the aftermath when a loved one dies of suicide.

In the aftermath of my brother's suicide, I found myself overwhelmed with grief. My friends and family saved my life, supporting me and loving me despite my inability to function properly. I have also found a community in the Life Matters support system. Here, they've supported by listening and offering practical advice free of judgement. I wanted to thank them for all the help they've given me over the years.

We've all heard about the cliched link between creativity and mental health. The archetype of the ''tortured artist'', a genius who creates great art despite suffering great pain has been part of Western culture for thousands of years, from the passionate idolisation of the ''mad, bad and dangerous'' Lord Byron to the rabid curiosity surrounding various members of the ''27 Club''. But perhaps we overlook the fact that when ordinary people like you or me, with symptoms of mental illness, engage in something creative, there's a chance they're more likely to get better as a result.

One of my favourite artists exhibiting in the Hope Exhibition is Michel Tuffery, a New Zealand-based artist of Samoan, Rarotongan and Ma'ohi Tahitian heritage. Tuffery's art examines environmental, community, cultural and art historical divides. His artistic career began as a young boy at Thorndon Primary school, when two teachers challenged him to do his printing by leaving a page blank that he could draw on once his assignment had been completed. ''The affirmation coming from them equally lifted my confidence with my visual communication,'' says Tuffery. His works have been snapped up already, but there are many more beautiful artworks for sale.

The human spirit can rise above adversity, and ordinary people with mental health issues can produce great art that communicates meaningfully with the rest of the world.

The Hope Exhibition for Suicide Prevention is at the Dunedin Community Gallery until November 26. Come along, marvel at some beautiful art, and support a good cause.

-Jean Balchin is an English student at the University of Otago.

NEED HELP?

Healthline 0800 611 116
Lifeline Aotearoa 0800 543 354
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Samaritans 0800 726 666
Alcohol Drug Helpline 0800 787 797
General mental health inquiries: 0800 44 33 66
The Depression Helpline 0800 111 757

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