Claudia A. Yaujar-Amaro | Planeta Venus | Wichita Journalism Collaborative
Although the pandemic has made us reflect on many things, one issue has become especially obvious. Now more than ever, we understand the importance of mental health in human beings.
In order to have a healthy community, people need to be healthy individuals first.
Information about this topic is more available now, and communities are striving to gather even more resources.
But for many immigrants, facing new customs, leaving traumas in the past, learning a new language, and simply surviving are the priorities, leaving little time or resources for caring for their mental health. What happens when what might seem to others to be abundant resources are not at your fingertips, in your pocket, or part of your knowledge?
Many times, the wisdom of past generations leads people to look for alternatives to survive and seek solutions to the evils that afflict our humanity, and without knowing, suddenly communities are looking for ways to heal, or in this case to take care of their mental health.
Some communities have been exploring art as a way of improving mental health, especially during the pandemic when people had to become creative when communicating while following social distancing protocols.
Armando Minjarez Monarrez, a local artist, curator, and activist, moved to Kansas from Parral Chihuahua Mexico when he was a teenager. He had been exposed to art since a young age, influenced by his mother. He found in art some relief when he started school in the United States and found a way to communicate with his Art teacher, even though he did not speak English.
“I brought my drawings and showed them to her. I couldn’t speak English, but that gave me the opportunity to take art classes in High School,” Minjarez said.
This experience set the tone for Armando to decide to study arts at the university. Minjarez says he was always curious about connecting arts with his community and activism. He was an undocumented student in High School, and he started participating in rallies and pro-immigrant rights campaigns that helped him grow his network and to understand the power of arts and activism.
“Art generates different emotions in people, — could be positive or negative — and that creates many opportunities to continue to explore our own feelings and to start tough conversations in our circles or communities,” Minjarez said.
In recent years, Armando has joined several local boards bringing awareness about diversity, equity and inclusion and has been able to help create multicultural spaces in the community by curating exhibitions where he invites regional artists of color, like the recently open exhibition at Marks Arts “The Space Between,” which will be open until May 22.
Chloé Gutmann, program director at Mark Arts said, “I have been living in Wichita for a couple years now and noticed the lack of spaces like this where different people could come together. I have known Armando since I moved to Wichita, and I am so excited about this exhibition and the diversity that this could bring.”
A COVID-19 social study, led by Dr. Daisy Fancourt of the University College of London, tracked arts participation and mental health in a cohort of 72,000 UK adults aged 18 and older on a weekly basis since March. The study suggests that people who have spent 30 minutes or more each day during the pandemic on arts activities such as reading for pleasure, listening to music, or engaging in a creative hobby, have lower reported rates of depression and anxiety and greater life satisfaction. In this study, people from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds in the UK exhibited notably worse mental health indicators.
That work has led to the launch of EpiArts Lab, a first-of-its-kind epidemiological study of the effects of the arts on public health in the United States, led by Dr. Fancourt and Jill Sonke, doctoral candidate, and the director of the Center for Medicine at the University of Florida. The EpiArts Lab will analyze several datasets that follow thousands of demographically representative U.S. residents over several decades and will seek to answer whether arts engagement has long-term benefits for public health. People can participate in this study in the U.S.
The EpiArts Lab is modeled on Dr. Fancourt’s previous research using similar longitudinal data about UK residents, which has found that arts engagement is associated with better mental health, lower risk of depression, enhanced health behaviors, reduced loneliness, and reduced engagement in adverse health behaviors. As a result of Dr. Fancourt’s work, several UK government departments have implemented major policy and practice changes, such as the UK Department of Health and Social Care investing in Arts on Prescription, which provides funding and a structure through which care providers refer patients to local arts and social engagement activities. These efforts have been shown to have positive impacts on the emotional wellbeing of participants.
Minjarez’ work has been controversial when it speaks about issues that people are not used to talking about. He understands that public art could be invasive because no matter how much you want to get everybody involved, it is impossible to engage everyone in a project.
“When we create public art, regardless of having a political connotation or not, to me it is the start of a conversation,” Armando said. He has seen teenagers starting a healing process from trauma through expressing themselves when painting a mural. People go through a process of discernment and reflection that helps them face challenges with more integrity. Armando says that if seeing this healing process in human beings is the result of his work, he feels satisfied and successful.
Despite Armando’s effort to open art spaces for minorities in Wichita, he faces another challenge; communities of color are not used to getting invited to participate or to create art. This makes Armando’s work difficult when he curates or organizes events in the community, and there is a lack of community participation. He invites parents to get their kids involved in the different activities that local museums and community centers offer. He believes it does not only help their children’s mental health, but it enriches family function.
In the last few years, Wichitans have been talking about the importance of bringing diverse communities together, and a few organizations have taken steps towards creating those spaces, including the Ulrich Museum, the Kansas African American Museum (TKAAM), Arts Partners Wichita, and now Marks Arts with its new exhibition.
“Art could be defined in different ways such as music, theater, dancing, visual arts, etc., but at the end is a way of communication, a way to create narratives, to transfer feelings and emotions and our culture backgrounds play an important part of it,” Minjarez said. “When we see or experience art, we need to feel connected to the artists, to the art pieces. My interest is on curate and create art for people who are usually not included or considered in those spaces.”
This story was produced as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of seven media companies and three community organizations, including Planeta Venus, working together to bring timely and accurate news and information to Kansans.