Years ago, I witnessed the power of art to soothe the troubled mind. I was at the Elgin Mental Health Center to write a story about a local group that handed out colored pencils, charcoal and drawing paper as a way to help patients suffering from severe mental illness harness their creativity.
This wasn't meant to be therapy, but a fun diversion for people dealing with some very tough issues. Still, I was struck by the pride they took in what they produced: One young man, after dismissing his ornate, graffitilike sketch as worthless, changed his mind after hearing a compliment, and carefully sandwiched the picture between two blank pieces of paper to keep it from smudging.
Art isn't just a restorative tool for people with anxiety, schizophrenia and other mental disorders; it's also a way to explain to the world what's going on inside their heads. You see this everywhere from "The Scream" to "The Bell Jar" to a slew of contemporary comics that use arresting graphic imagery to illustrate their creators' experiences.
Now comes an animated musical comedy called "My Depression (The Up and Down and Up of It)," created by Broadway playwright Liz Swados. The 30-minute film, which premieres Monday night at 8 p.m. on HBO, reminds me of a "Schoolhouse Rock" episode with its simple style and catchy tunes, including one upbeat number on suicide, of all things.
The approach might sound weirdly lighthearted, but it manages to stir a sense of empathy while packing in a lot of information about a disease that, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, afflicts 7 percent of adults.I spoke with Swados about the unusual medium she used to chronicle her struggle with the illness, and what she is hoping to accomplish with the film. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why a cartoon musical comedy about depression?A: It started out as a book. I had a friend who was very depressed and I wanted to give her something, so I made a cartoon book for her. When she got better, she thought it was good enough that it should be published. Someone suggested we make a movie, so we got some money and made a sizzle (a short version of a film used to drum up interest), and we showed it to HBO. They wanted to do it, so it was great.
Q: Are you concerned some people might find this style to be inappropriate?A: The thing is that people have been doing things about mental illness, and they've been making them soft and sweet. They're not telling the truth. People who suffer from depression know that the truth is something a lot more painful. So what I tried to do is mix the truth with humor, so that the reality would be a combination of something extremely hard to take but also fun. It was a risk, but I think it worked.
Q: I think artists sometimes believe there is something noble about enduring depression. Did you ever share that attitude, and what do you make of it now?A: I absolutely disagree with it. I don't think anything is made when someone is suffering. I don't think people have to feel bad to do good work, and I don't think they have to act terribly to create good things.
Q: Mental illness is not something a lot of people want to talk about. Why were you comfortable discussing this in such a public way?A: It was the momentum of what happened. I wanted to give (the cartoon book) to one person, and it just had a momentum from there. I thought it might be helpful, and I thought maybe it would wake some people up. I do believe, as an artist, that there is an obligation to help, so I went along with my gut.
Q: You've been dealing with this since you were a teenager. How often do you experience a depressive episode these days, and how do you handle it?A: It comes and goes. Years go by and there's nothing. Then there's another year and it (lasts for) three months. The way I handle it is through medication and therapy.
Q: What's the most important thing you've learned in terms of managing the symptoms?A: That they end. The feelings go away. Trust that you can be helped and it can be taken care of. Don't give up hope.
Q: What would you like people to get out of the film?A: That they're not alone. People who have these symptoms are not alone, and they can be helped. It's not something to be ashamed of. We have to get rid of the stigma. It's an illness like any other.