In honor of Minority Mental Health Month last July, Letters to Strangers founder and Moonglass Studios fine art photographer Diana Chao took a series of self-portraits to conceptually illustrate her own experience with mental illness.
I was depressed and bipolar starting in middle school, a fact which is met with incredulity and endless questioning each time I publicly mention it. But how can bipolar disorder affect someone so young? Are you SURE you were mentally ill? How would that even feel like to an 8th grader? And then there were the racially-targeted comments. Was it because you had tiger parents and you couldn’t handle it? Is it because you chinks are too submissive? Model minority = model health, too, I suppose.
Well, when I embarked on a project to interview people in the richest and poorest parts of San Francisco about their mental health experience this summer and was blasted with these same questions again and again, I decided to answer them through art.
#1: Cotton Cold
It is often true that in minority cultures, sometimes stigma against mental health feels suffocating. I was tired of mental health being buried beneath bed frames and front doors and backpacks like a silent curse. I was tired of these issues that should be so obvious being so discreetly tossed like last week’s leftovers. Even when the media does mention mental health, it’s almost always from a white context, even though POC experience mental illnesses at the same percentage as whites - which means that some of the people who really need help are not able to see an avenue out reflected to them on screens. In fact, the very manual (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) that psychotherapists use to diagnose patients is based on white patients and neglects the glaring effects culture, immigration, and ethnicity can play in one’s mental health journey. Because of this, I wanted to raise awareness in a way that could potentially appeal to a mass audience: fine art photography.
Therefore, in this photo, I mainly wanted to highlight two things: 1) the suffocating isolation of depression that I experienced; 2) the psychosomatic symptoms of mental illness that most people worldwide have no idea even exist. Specifically, I recalled depression as a period of my life when I felt like I was choking myself full of nothing - like I was hollow on the inside and desperate for anything to fill me, even if that something was as pointless as cotton balls. Note that I am speaking solely from my own perspective, for this reason:
Mental illness affects each person differently. It cannot and should not be generalized to a digestible, comfortable, socially-defined narrow definition that forces those whose experiences fall outside of that often under-informed definition to dismiss their own pain because they are seen as “romanticizing” or “crying for attention” if they are portraying their own reality in a way that is honest to them yet unfortunately outside of society’s myopic understanding of “acceptable” mental illness.
Onto point two: ethnic minorities are more likely to suffer from physical symptoms in relation to mental illness, also known as psychosomatic symptoms, than the white population. The most well-known example I can think of for psychosomatic symptoms, however, is John Watson in Sherlock and his “limp.” In one episode, he suddenly loses his limp, and it turns out he didn’t actually hurt his leg - the limp was a psychosomatic symptom of his post traumatic stress disorder from combat. I wanted to use “cold” in the title of this image because many people don’t realize that mental and physical health are so interlinked that even your immune system can be impacted by it - and one immune system illness is the cold. Of course, that’s not to say anyone who has a cold is mentally ill. That’s certainly not true in almost every case. But I wanted people to see psychosomatic symptoms’ impact outside of the media’s interpretation of PTSD, and I wanted people to be jolted by how it can affect them on such a daily, intimate basis. This becomes all the more urgent when you take into consideration that people with mental illnesses are more likely to report physical symptoms if they’re from a minority group. For example: many Cambodian refugees report chronic neck pain. The doctors fail to find the cause. Turns out the root is in the slave labor many Cambodians underwent during the Cambodian genocide, and how that trauma manifested in physical symptoms. Some Southeast Asian refugees of the Vietnam and Secret War even suffer from psychosomatic blindness because the PTSD is so crippling. The reason behind this is very interesting and still under extensive study, but I highly encourage you to research it.
Almost no education model currently recognizes the existence and importance of psychosomatic symptoms. Even beyond that, someone with a mental illness may not properly take care of their physical self when needs arise, exacerbating any medical concerns they may have. I can only hope that my photo series is the first step in a long journey of mental health education for all of us, myself included.
If we do not even understand the issue, how can we begin to solve it?
#2: Bipolar Balloons
For this image, the idea was to use strong intense opposite colors on the color wheel (red and blue) to show how metaphorically speaking, bipolar disorder to me was an intense proliferation of opposite emotions (depressive deepness and jostling highs). I also taped myself with balloons because it was this idea of constantly being filled up and then, when the air whooshes out, the balloon sputters itself into flat nothing again - just like how I felt after an e