Symbolizing Mental Illness: The Imagery of Raw Emotion

By Stevie Tierney

Editor’s Note: This article is the first of its kind for Conversations Magazine. We featured nine works of art by Rockhurst University student Stevie Tierney. After reading her words, look at each painting slowly as if you were in an art museum. Ask yourself - what do you feel as you see her description of each mental illness? What stirs in you?


As a nursing student at Research College of Nursing and currently working on my art minor at Rockhurst University, I have been taking art classes for three years now. Art has been a hobby of mine since I was nine years old but helping people and bringing compassion into their lives is my passion. One year ago, I signed up for an independent study that correlated with my mental health nursing course. I decided to merge my new understanding of mental health and my own personal struggles with my passion for art and helping others. I created a series of ten paintings based off mental health illnesses, each featured below.

I went through a very detailed and thought out process when making these mental health pieces, using liquid, high-flow and solid acrylics to make these paintings. When I was in my mental health course I would learn everything needed to understand what it meant to live with these mental illnesses. I wanted my pieces to be emotional and disturbing so people could not just gain knowledge and understanding of what it looks like to live with these mental illnesses but to feel the raw emotion that these people feel every day. I feel as humans we learn best through imagery and symbolism and that is why every portion of my art held symbolism to the mental illness it was depicting. I wanted to help and bring peace to people with mental struggles. Sometimes we do not know how to explain or understand our struggles, but my art was made in place of those words that we never know how to say.


ANGER

 The person is violently shaking from anger. They are unable to control their emotions and what is going on around them, screaming with rage. They see red and may even blackout, they have no control. The heart in the middle is meant to symbolize shaking as well, that being a big symptom. The hands are aggressive and tense, looking like they are coming out to hurt you.

The person is violently shaking from anger. They are unable to control their emotions and what is going on around them, screaming with rage. They see red and may even blackout, they have no control. The heart in the middle is meant to symbolize shaking as well, that being a big symptom. The hands are aggressive and tense, looking like they are coming out to hurt you.


Anxiety

 I used what my anxiety feels like as inspiration for this one. The eyes and the mouths, in the black cloud, are the social anxiety: they represent the fear of constantly being judged, talked about, laughed at, and watched. They are cartoons because our brain is our worst enemy, creating this reality in our heads that is not real. The lungs being squeezed by hands represent panic attacks: we cannot explain whether it’s ourselves causing these attacks or something internal. The eyes remain white because I can never focus in my anxious state, some people can black out. The arms have this appearance of melting because they can tingle and go numb with panic attacks and anxiety, tend to lose feeling in our hands. All the black spots building off the black cloud symbolize how our anxiety grows and builds off everything around us and our mind.

I used what my anxiety feels like as inspiration for this one. The eyes and the mouths, in the black cloud, are the social anxiety: they represent the fear of constantly being judged, talked about, laughed at, and watched. They are cartoons because our brain is our worst enemy, creating this reality in our heads that is not real. The lungs being squeezed by hands represent panic attacks: we cannot explain whether it’s ourselves causing these attacks or something internal. The eyes remain white because I can never focus in my anxious state, some people can black out. The arms have this appearance of melting because they can tingle and go numb with panic attacks and anxiety, tend to lose feeling in our hands. All the black spots building off the black cloud symbolize how our anxiety grows and builds off everything around us and our mind.


BiPolar Disorder

 People with bi-polar disorder often show a mania state of mind: they can go from a complete euphoric state to a depressive nature. The black and white silhouette represents the profile of the person - who they are really are. The black and white also represents depression, whereas pink represents the euphoric state of mind. They are blurred because their emotions can change so fast it’s a blur. The faces are representation of the brain, or head, and the rapid change of emotions they may feel. The tornado is meant to represent the twist in emotions and how they look like they are splitting them in half, breaking them apart. The black and white also represents depression, whereas pink represents the euphoric state of mine.

People with bi-polar disorder often show a mania state of mind: they can go from a complete euphoric state to a depressive nature. The black and white silhouette represents the profile of the person - who they are really are. The black and white also represents depression, whereas pink represents the euphoric state of mind. They are blurred because their emotions can change so fast it’s a blur. The faces are representation of the brain, or head, and the rapid change of emotions they may feel. The tornado is meant to represent the twist in emotions and how they look like they are splitting them in half, breaking them apart. The black and white also represents depression, whereas pink represents the euphoric state of mine.


Depression

 My goal was for you to be drawn to the smile first. The smile is painted on the duct tape, representing this false appearance we wear signifying that we are “okay” because we are smiling. That’s what most people will assume: why would anyone with such a beautiful and bright smile have anything to be sad about? So beautiful we don’t notice the pain, emotion and posture behind it. You don’t want to believe it but trust me we are dying behind that smile. What you see is this dark appearance melting into nothing, no hope for anything. We tear ourselves apart and we tear ourselves down. We believe we may never be good enough for anyone or anything and sometimes we find comfort in that. One hand is strong trying to tear down and the other hand is exhausted, too tired to keep trying. We turn into nothing but this hollow body. This one is very sad and dark but it is important to be heard, known and most importantly seen. Try to understand and notice someone more personally, really dig deep because you could be the light welcomed back in their life.

My goal was for you to be drawn to the smile first. The smile is painted on the duct tape, representing this false appearance we wear signifying that we are “okay” because we are smiling. That’s what most people will assume: why would anyone with such a beautiful and bright smile have anything to be sad about? So beautiful we don’t notice the pain, emotion and posture behind it. You don’t want to believe it but trust me we are dying behind that smile. What you see is this dark appearance melting into nothing, no hope for anything. We tear ourselves apart and we tear ourselves down. We believe we may never be good enough for anyone or anything and sometimes we find comfort in that. One hand is strong trying to tear down and the other hand is exhausted, too tired to keep trying. We turn into nothing but this hollow body. This one is very sad and dark but it is important to be heard, known and most importantly seen. Try to understand and notice someone more personally, really dig deep because you could be the light welcomed back in their life.


Eating Disorder

 The body you see is meant to represent the figure of a mannequin with ribs because a perfect image is wanted and needed in their eyes. It symbolizes a hollow feeling, the pink tones representing the scars left on the body. The mirror represents a disturbing image that the person with an eating disorder visualizes, even if they are skin and bones.

The body you see is meant to represent the figure of a mannequin with ribs because a perfect image is wanted and needed in their eyes. It symbolizes a hollow feeling, the pink tones representing the scars left on the body. The mirror represents a disturbing image that the person with an eating disorder visualizes, even if they are skin and bones.


Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

 Someone once said, “they hate it but they can’t stop, not in control of their thoughts.” That is why I tied the arms together as if this OCD is forced upon them, not matter how much they try to stop it. the multiple hands are so focused on fixing all the chaos around them, they are in control. The hands are trying to put all the colors back into their rightful sections. The figure has not a spot out of place, they are terrified for anything to be out of place or anything to be on them.

Someone once said, “they hate it but they can’t stop, not in control of their thoughts.” That is why I tied the arms together as if this OCD is forced upon them, not matter how much they try to stop it. the multiple hands are so focused on fixing all the chaos around them, they are in control. The hands are trying to put all the colors back into their rightful sections. The figure has not a spot out of place, they are terrified for anything to be out of place or anything to be on them.


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

 PTSD is not only military, it can also be from sickness, abuse, assault, agoraphobia, and it can develop from anything. You can have anxiety and depression, or it can stem from anxiety and depression. Those who have it can have fears, hallucinations and blackouts. Some say they never have control of their body, sometimes having no personal identity. The head coming out of the real head represents depersonalization (an out of body experience) and living inside out. The black spiral around has multiple symbolic meanings: being trapped in a nightmare, darkness consuming you, flashback, stuck in a fog. The hands represent fear of everything and everyone around you. The hands are trying to get you, always watching you. The colors symbolize the variety of things that can trigger a PTSD attack: People, situations, smells, noises. These problems come back from the past to haunt them. They feel out of control and never know when this attack can happen.

PTSD is not only military, it can also be from sickness, abuse, assault, agoraphobia, and it can develop from anything. You can have anxiety and depression, or it can stem from anxiety and depression. Those who have it can have fears, hallucinations and blackouts. Some say they never have control of their body, sometimes having no personal identity. The head coming out of the real head represents depersonalization (an out of body experience) and living inside out. The black spiral around has multiple symbolic meanings: being trapped in a nightmare, darkness consuming you, flashback, stuck in a fog. The hands represent fear of everything and everyone around you. The hands are trying to get you, always watching you. The colors symbolize the variety of things that can trigger a PTSD attack: People, situations, smells, noises. These problems come back from the past to haunt them. They feel out of control and never know when this attack can happen.


Schizophrenia

 People diagnosed with Schizophrenia tend to self-medicate to quiet the voices in their head. At the bottom of the painting is a profile of a face, formed in pill bottles. The pill bottles are colorful to symbolize the last bit of sanity those medications may be offering them, helping to control what they feel and hear. All the faces you see behind the profile is their mind, the voices they hear in their head and the emotions they feel. I made the colors dark and neutral because the voices can range from hatred and evil to quiet and polite. The voices form into a bottle at the top that represents drinking as a form of self-medication as well.

People diagnosed with Schizophrenia tend to self-medicate to quiet the voices in their head. At the bottom of the painting is a profile of a face, formed in pill bottles. The pill bottles are colorful to symbolize the last bit of sanity those medications may be offering them, helping to control what they feel and hear. All the faces you see behind the profile is their mind, the voices they hear in their head and the emotions they feel. I made the colors dark and neutral because the voices can range from hatred and evil to quiet and polite. The voices form into a bottle at the top that represents drinking as a form of self-medication as well.


Sexual Assault/ Abuse / rape

 This one holds a lot of symbolism and meaning. I left the background white and simple because I want to make this as vulnerable and uncomfortable as I can. I made a nude figure to represent the constant feeling of being vulnerable and exposed. The chunks missing from the body represent a shark bite. I made that symbolism because I see our attackers as predators, they touch us and hurt us in places we don’t live. we lose a piece of ourselves when we are violated and made to not feel comfortable in our own skin. The cracks you see show how strong the survivor is trying to be, trying to hold it all in. they also can represent breaking, from being hit or attacked. But slowly they are cracking, falling apart inside. The colors symbolize the bruising, the pain and the attack. She is missing half of her head, this is for the emotional abuse and losing part of who you are. I didn’t give her any arms because we were always supposed to want and accept human touch but when you receive it in a way that is incredibly terrifying and harmful, you grow to lose that love for touch. There is so much more you can interpret from this, but these were the main ones I wanted to point out.

This one holds a lot of symbolism and meaning. I left the background white and simple because I want to make this as vulnerable and uncomfortable as I can. I made a nude figure to represent the constant feeling of being vulnerable and exposed. The chunks missing from the body represent a shark bite. I made that symbolism because I see our attackers as predators, they touch us and hurt us in places we don’t live. we lose a piece of ourselves when we are violated and made to not feel comfortable in our own skin. The cracks you see show how strong the survivor is trying to be, trying to hold it all in. they also can represent breaking, from being hit or attacked. But slowly they are cracking, falling apart inside. The colors symbolize the bruising, the pain and the attack. She is missing half of her head, this is for the emotional abuse and losing part of who you are. I didn’t give her any arms because we were always supposed to want and accept human touch but when you receive it in a way that is incredibly terrifying and harmful, you grow to lose that love for touch. There is so much more you can interpret from this, but these were the main ones I wanted to point out.


Stevie Tierney is a nursing student at Research College and Nursing and an art minor at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, MO. She now has an Etsy account, MentalHealthAware, where she sells prints and donates some of the proceeds for every print sold to Mental Health America of The Heartland. All photos are featured courtesy of Tierney and are copy written.