Empathy and the portrayals of mental illness in Australian visual culture workshop

“What does empathy mean for you? What are the limitations of empathy?” These are some of the questions that were the focus of discussion during a workshop at The Dax Centre, held in November 2015.

This facilitated workshop was the centrepiece in the development of the research project ‘Empathy and portrayals of mental illness in Australian visual culture’, supported by the DRI and the Melbourne Social Equity Institute. The project is led by Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor Barbara Creed with researchers from the Melbourne Medical School, the School of Global and Population Health, and the School of Culture and Communication. The purpose of the workshop was to encourage participation from the mental health community in the early stages of development to ensure the project would be responsive to community needs.

The workshop brought together over 30 participants from a range of backgrounds, including mental health consumers and advocates, writers and filmmakers, researchers from Canberra, Flinders, La Trobe, Melbourne and RMIT Universities, representatives from the Hunter Institute of Mental Health, Vicserv, Tandem, the Mental Health Complaints Commission, as well as the project partners The Dax Centre, SANE Australia, and Mind Australia. In addition to probing the benefits and limitations of empathy for combating the stigma of mental illness, participants participated in hands-on activities using iPads and digital cameras to explore ways in which visual media can foster empathy and raise awareness of mental health issues. Throughout the workshop, participants were able to view The Dax Centre’s exhibition A Mind Beginning to Know Itself. This exhibition of works from the Cunningham Dax Collection was intended to share the many varied experiences of individuals living with depression.

The research team collated key discussion points and participants’ feedback in a discussion paper that will be used to shape the project going forward. The workshop demonstrated that the concept of empathy is in need of greater theorising, particularly in relation to the arts and social change, and that visual culture and digital technologies can be powerful tools for reducing stigma and fostering empathy. As one participant wrote: “Digital storytelling offers an easy, effective and affordable way to get strangers to work together quickly in a meaningful way that creates collaboration and fosters connection. The work produced shows that everyone is creative and can produce powerful and engaging, thought-provoking images that are both highly personal but also universal.”

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Fincina Hopgood