The creative process is often an invaluable catalyst for designers and artists to deal with mental health issues, and it’s this concept on which Liverpool-based initiative Comics Youth was founded. “We saw that comics had the potential to fill the gaps in provisions for young people,” explains Jhelisa Taylor-Brown, one of the organisation’s founders. “I lost my mum at a young age, and struggled with depression and self-harm, and it was only really in comics that I found a way to deal with it all because there was a lack of support elsewhere.”
Comics Youth runs workshops with young people helping them to create their own comics and zines as a platform to express themselves and deal with challenging times in their lives. Currently it’s running a collaborative project with Tate and the University of Liverpool called Illustrating Futures, focused specifically on mental health and taking the same approach as with all its projects. “We’re not stomping into a room saying ‘let’s talk about mental health’. We use the workshops to build relationships and build the kids’ soft skills, help them gain confidence and develop ideas they’re proud of,” says Jhelisa. “As a result, the kids don’t have to put their life on a plate, they talk about what they’re dealing with under layers of creative ideas, or through a character of their own making.”
The idea is to provide a space that’s more supportive of the introverts, or the sufferers less likely to talk about their problems. “It’s a safe, empathetic, positive environment, they feel valued,” says Jhelisa, “and it’s a quiet room – they’re focused on creating their comic and begin to talk as they’re working on it. No one’s staring at them. A massive hurdle is confidence as they don’t value themselves or their own skills. These kids don’t want to do drama or football, they want to do our workshops. Afterwards, they develop the resilience to go and do those more extroverted hobbies.”
The organisation is youth-led, the oldest member being 28, which Jhelisa believes helps the workshops seem accessible and “not fusty”. “We’re all geeky in similar ways, not old enough to be figures of authority, not too old to chat about Adventure Time.” On the team are comic and zine illustrators, as well as people from youth sector and fundraising backgrounds; Jhelisa herself studied English, but has worked in comic book shops all her life. “We teach them about narrative, panel transitions, the grammatical conventions of comics – speech balloons, captions, etc. – the size of panels, and things like the balance of image and text. An image and text together uses dual coding, so it’s the most efficient way to convey a complex message – which makes it a great platform for what we’re doing.” All the workshops are free, including materials, which allows young people from all backgrounds to attend.
Jhelisa gives one example of a previous attendee, referred to as B, who – over a series of comic-making workshops – began to discuss their gender identity. “It was because of comics they came to the realisation they only drew themselves as a person of the opposite sex,” says Jhelisa. Another attendee had kept a diary of the traumatic events they’d experienced, and “basically been told to get over it” by those around her, so the Comics Youth team helped her turn it into a script.
“I find it disheartening when you hear that young people are getting the same advice I was ten years ago, and especially with the lack of arts provisions in schools we feel like what we’re doing allows these young people to talk about their issues,” Jhelisa says. “This gives these young people ownership of what they’re going through.”
The next Illustrating Futures events will be held at Tate Liverpool from 16-22 October 2017.
1 in 4 people in the UK experience a mental health problem every year, and in England, 1 in every 6 people report a common mental health problem – like anxiety and depression – each week. But only 1 in 4 people in the UK reporting mental health difficulties receive ongoing treatment. If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed in today’s coverage, if you would like to find out more or to donate, please contact Mind or CALM.