How Gen Z is using art and creativity to improve their mental health

Kaleigh Fasanella
·9 mins read
Three ultra-talented young artists who contributed to the Yahoo Creators Contest share how art and creativity have positively impacted them during distressing times. (Art: Isabell Berkowitz)
Three ultra-talented young artists who contributed to the Yahoo Creators Contest share how art and creativity have positively impacted them during distressing times. (Art: Isabell Berkowitz)

To say that 2020 has been a tough year would be a grand understatement. In the last eight months alone, many have witnessed more death, pain and political pandemonium than ever before. The fear, isolation and demise caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the horrific onslaught of police brutality and racism that’s still so rife in the U.S. today, has rocked people to their core. And consequently, there’s been a significant rise in anxiety and depression — specifically in the younger generations.

In a recent survey conducted by VSCO, over 80 percent of Gen Zers polled said that they feel more anxious about the future now than they did prior to the pandemic. And that was before the brutal slayings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Elijah McClain — and so many more innocent Black lives — were brought to light. It was before the months of protests that followed. And it was before we lost beloved public figures like Naya Rivera, Chadwick Boseman and John Lewis, whom so many of us have looked to for hope and strength during these trying and uncertain times.

Amid all of the turmoil, though, one thing has become inextricably clear: We humans are extremely resilient creatures. Our ability to bounce back and move forward in the face of adversity is truly astounding and inspiring — as are the self-care tactics that those in their teens and early 20s are using to cope and keep their spirits up.

One medium, in particular, that’s proven beneficial at improving young people’s mental health during these distressing times is art and creativity. We know this because, back in late May, when Yahoo ran its Creators Contest on Instagram and TikTok to highlight how art can serve as a form of self-care, the response was overwhelming. Even when promotion for the campaign paused to give focus to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the contest continued and garnered over 600 additional entries — as well as a whopping 18 million-plus social impressions across both platforms.

This level of engagement just goes to show how much art and creativity matter — especially when it comes to helping people’s mental health. Ultimately, it works twofold: Some use art as a way to escape the world’s harsh realities for a while, and others use it to express what they can’t find within themselves to say during such a difficult climate. Then, of course, there are those who use it for both.

Don’t just take our word for it, though. Ahead, hear from three ultra-talented young artists — all of whom contributed to the Yahoo Creators Contest — to find out exactly how art and creativity have positively impacted them amidst the aforementioned struggles.

Elizabeth Idowu, 24, She/Her

The Yahoo Creator Contest allowed me to jump into my creative bag and also heal. This year has been full of so much loss and sadness that I wanted to capture that through my artistic lens. I’ve been painting for an entire year now and I’ve grown and developed so much. Portraits are my favorite thing to paint on canvas and Pop Smoke was an artist I had grown to love because his craft was unique, so I created this piece in tribute to his contribution to music.

For me, art is my escape — just like in music, sports or gaming, once you’re in “flow” or “the zone,” it’s hard to notice anything outside of what you’re concentrating on. When I’m feeling down or stressed, music is also another outlet. The two go hand in hand; painting and listening to music is a healing process, and I find a sense of satisfaction when an art project is finished.

Also, I find that through art I can be an activist. I can share my political views and spread awareness about global issues because art has little to no bounds, and my imagination never stops. So, in turn, I am able to channel my opinions and thoughts through art. For instance, I collaborated with a producer and made a music video about the BLM movement, and created an illustration that highlights how the wealth of Wall Street was built on the backs of slaves.

At the end of the day, my creativity has developed and will continue to develop as I grow as an artist and continue to create different mediums of art. I’m excited for that journey to unfold.

Gally Cook, 16, She/Her

Art has always had an impact on me, but over the course of these past few months, it's become such a defining part of who I am and who I want to be. In the past, I often thought about how others would think of me and how to fit in, but when the pandemic hit and social media was the outlet for not only me, but basically every other creator out there, it was cool to see how people were able to be themselves and represent all of these different art styles that I’d never seen before. The Yahoo Creators Contest was a really cool experience because even though I submitted one final piece, in reality, I created a lot of pieces before it. I was only going to submit something if it truly felt like “me,” even if it took a couple of tries.

That’s because I feel like today there are a lot of large creators whose messages and content are all about having a lot of money and nice things. Personality and individuality isn't valued enough, so when I created my piece, I wanted it to highlight just that: who I am. I want as many people in the world to know that there’s truly no one else out there like them and that there simply isn’t enough time to worry about all the little things, especially when it’s sacrificing who you want to be and what makes you happy.

One of the reasons I love art is because you have complete control over every little aspect about it: what medium you use, what paper, what colors, just everything. And for that reason, it really helps my mental health because no matter how tired I am after school and extracurriculars, or how much time I have, there's always something I can do that de-stresses me or gives my brain a break.

Recently especially, with the pandemic and all of the serious things surrounding the world right now, it’s been easy to get caught up in all of it and stress over how I should be presenting myself in these times. Lately, how I’ve been facing that is by making earrings that I find really unique that you can’t get anywhere else, which not only lets me express myself and my art in my everyday outfits, but is also a really positive outlet for me to focus on.

I’ve spent a lot of time with myself since the pandemic hasn’t been allowing me to do otherwise, and art has shown me I can make anything I want — plus, it’s given me the confidence to finally share it with everyone.

Isabell Berkowitz, 22, She/Her

I’ve always used art to express myself, so when I heard there was a contest prompting contestants to share how their creativity was getting them through the present moment, I almost felt like it was designed for me. I created a piece that portrayed all of the feelings I had experienced lately, along with a caption detailing how creativity has helped me through current issues. Then I searched the Yahoo Creators Contest hashtag and saw other people’s entries, noticing that some people had written similar things. It felt gratifying to know that other people felt the same way I did.

When it comes to my art, I try to create pieces that portray whatever range of emotions I’m experiencing. The creative process is very healing, and I often feel better after completing an emotional piece. However, I don’t expect creating to be a cure for mental health issues. My pieces are more like a log of how I was feeling at that time. Sort of like a journal entry that I can look back at and think, “That’s how I felt at that time and I made it through, so I can get through whatever I’m dealing with now.”

This year, more than ever, art has been my saving grace. In the early months of COVID-19 when no one knew what was going to happen, I suffered a kind of anxiety I had never experienced before. I had nowhere to turn but art: I couldn’t go to work, I couldn’t go out with friends or family and I didn’t even know if it was safe to go for a walk outside. I used art as a sort of antidote to my fear and confusion. When I needed a distraction, I created pieces that were whimsical and contained animals and nature. When I needed to purge negativity, my pieces were darker and more serious.

When George Floyd was murdered, I felt even more things I hadn’t before. I’ve always supported BLM, but as a white person, I don’t think I truly understood how widespread and constant the injustices Black people face are until he was killed. Suddenly, I was thinking about the mistreatment of the Black community every day. I protested and donated and signed petitions, but still felt uncomfortable knowing I live in a systematically racist environment. I drew a portrait of George Floyd; a tribute to the man who was tragically murdered but changed the world, and I felt a little bit better.

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