Creativity, innovation and the arts promoting positive mental health

Gunner Josh Wallenbon of the 8th/12th Regiment based in Darwin paints graffiti art on a derelict bus at the Townsville Field Training Area during Exercise Hamel. Gunner Wallenbon is a legal graffiti artist in Darwin 
Mark Johnstone, KPMG Alumni, Chairman & Director, Australian National Veterans Arts Museum
Mark Johnston, KPMG Alumni, Chairman & Director, Australian National Veterans Arts Museum

‘Mental Health Day’… we have one once a year. Some people have several mental health days each year. They are probably the smart ones as mental health is something to be nurtured, cherished and is a really big deal. How big a deal you may ask? When 1 in 5 Australians has a mental health condition…right now, I’d say that’s a big deal. The estimated cost to the economy in 2014 from mental ill health was over $98 billion. That’s a big number in anyone’s language and, by that measure, also a big deal.

Putting numbers aside for a moment, an even bigger issue is the personal impact mental ill health has in our lives, on our families and in our communities. If you’ve never suffered mental ill health, or known someone who has, then it may be difficult to appreciate just how debilitating mental ill health can be and, at the most extreme, how tragically sad.

In Australia, we lose eight people to suicide every day including one military veteran every four days. Just think about that for a moment. In the time it takes to read this article there will be someone, somewhere, in Australia preparing to take their own life, and other families coming to grips with the tragic consequences of discovering a loved one who has taken this path. All the clichés and all the ‘awareness’ we can offer through days like Mental Health Day won’t bring those people back and will not change the impact their loss will have on families, friends and colleges.

While Mental Health Day aims to promote positive mental health, the harsh reality is that more and more Australians are falling victim to mental ill health. Why in the 21st Century do we not have the knowhow and wherewithal to actually have a healthier community?

Perhaps one of the ingredients that’s been steadily stripped away over recent decades is our individual and collective opportunity to be creative; to make or create something that others have the opportunity to appreciate and that generates a dialogue between people – offering a window into the way we each think about and see the world.

In conversations I have with people about mental health I often refer to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Malsow’s well-known framework was developed soon after the end of World War II when the ability to distill those essential elements for survival had rarely been so evident. In his hierarchy, Maslow concluded that creativity and innovation are essential ingredients we all need to survive and thrive.

There is no better example than from the experiences of Prisoners of War during World War 11. The Allied prisoners of the Japanese Imperial Army in Thailand were extremely limited in the staples for survival we often take for granted; food, shelter, health care, safety from extreme violence. Yet the ingredients they did have that allowed many to survive were the arts and a tightly bound community. The recognition of the role that art played in keeping men alive was highlighted by Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop when he said in his war diary, ‘Get men working at arts and crafts in the hospital thereby help them acquire an interest in life.’

The arts have always played an important role in the mental health of veterans. As early as the Gallipoli campaign during World War 1 veterans were engaged in various forms of art to keep themselves busy, to tell their stories and to capture the moment. A group of actors even formed a theatre troupe at Gallipoli calling themselves the ANZAC Coves. They performed in the trenches and later during the war were introduced to King George V.

This history and heritage of arts engagement in the veteran community is a cornerstone for the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum (ANVAM) in its role promoting arts for wellbeing for veterans and their families. ANVAM uses this important history of veterans’ art engagement to normalise arts for modern veterans. This also creates a sense of culture and identity modern day veterans can relate to in their own creative engagement.

Given the state of mental health in the Australian community today, Mental Health Day should be one of the more important days of the year. It should be a day where each of us, in our own respective roles as leaders, employers, colleagues, friends and family members commits to action that will make a positive difference to mental health in our own lives and of those around us.

May one of those commitments be to creativity; to exploring your own personal expression, facilitating creativity of others or even engaging in the arts through a visit to an exhibition or performance that gives you the opportunity to slow down, reflect and to be in the moment.

Mark worked in the Defence & National Security practice at KPMG until September this year when he left to pursue his passion as the Chairman & Director of the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum.

Image: © Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence

2 thoughts on “Creativity, innovation and the arts promoting positive mental health

  1. ANVAM has some really interesting pieces of art and has been a great outlet for a number of our veterans who are looking for ways to better connect with their community. Great work Mark Johnston and KPMG for supporting this initiative, hopefully it continues.

  2. Mark has for years championed creativity as a means to improve positive mental health. KPMG should continue its support to the Australian National Veteran Arts Museum.

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