By Charlotte Garnett
Art has always been the most important part of my life. A way of controlling, expressing and reflecting upon the world around me, and how I fit into it. Most importantly, it has been imperative to my own journey with mental health.
I became aware of mental health stigma as a young teen battling an eating disorder and major depression. I learned that this side of my life was very much an unmentionable topic that society did not just fear, but did not want to understand. Unable to really acknowledge my mental health with my peers, I turned to the arts – to the honest, raw expression within this community.
‘Art should make you feel something’ is a statement I have always worked by. I try to impart a sense of understanding through my work; of me, of ourselves and of those around us. Up to 1 in 5 of us struggle with anxiety on some level. Yet despite this, many people aren’t willing to accept this side of themselves for fear of being labeled as inferior. Many are unlikely to seek help or speak about their experience publicly. Whether struggling with severe anxious disorders or with the stress of everyday life, most of us have developed natural coping mechanisms. We use these on a daily basis without noticing them. I spent my final year at university observing and analysing these behaviours, in others and myself. I wanted to create something sincere, something useful, and something that was still aesthetically desirable.
If you bounce your foot, bite your nails, pull at your hair, or fiddle with your earrings in uncomfortable situations, you've engaged in stimming. ‘Stims’ are repetitive behaviours that help individuals process overwhelming sensory input. When researching, I became fascinated with Bob Hirshon’s analysis of a group of women during the French Revolution known as les tricoteuses, notorious for knitting while they watched beheadings. Hirshon observed that “The women may have been undisturbed by the guillotine because they knit, not the other way around’.
It's not practical to carry around "emergency knitting" for times of stress. But these traumatised women, who benefitted from an emergency knitting kit, inspired me to start developing a range of portable objects for emergency fiddling.
The ‘grounding’ techniques I was taught in therapy focused on the same psychological reasoning as ‘stimming’ - distraction and disruption of anxious mental spiralling. Grounding techniques focus the mind on simple things that interact with your senses in the present (sight/smell/touch). While useful, these are rarely popular in anxious communities. It can be so hard to focus on an external stimulus when there is nothing easy, obvious and tangible to grasp as the mind races. I was always told to carry an elastic band to ping against my wrist, but the unergonomic feel of the band made it feel unnatural in the moment.
That’s when I realised that there was a lack of any physical products with positive connotations designed for mental wellbeing. Religious and ancient meditative tools, such as worry beads and Baoding balls, formed the basis of my research into kinetic objects. I turned to my own experiences to bring them into the 21st century.
By breaking my personal stigma and embarrassment, I introduced it as a casual topic of conversation at university. My peers, anxious or not, borrowed my prototypes when studying, to cut back on smoking, or just for fun. People approached me casually and told me about a stimming habit they’d noticed, and we’d giggle at the state of my own anxiously picked nail varnish. It was no longer a ‘big deal’. This is the message I want to spread with my work – mental health is not always a huge scary monster, or a secret to be ashamed of.
Mental health does not always hinder us. When society is accepting, it can be the thing that makes us unique and strong. We don’t need to divide ourselves into the "well" and "not well". Us and them. To me, jewellery is an extension of art; a creative outlet to pour myself into. That's why my work is all about making a difficult part of our psyches easier to live with, whether you identify as ill or not.