Artist Azrina Rahim was diagnosed with three mental health conditions before she decided to use art to raise awareness about mental illness. Previously working as an architect and designer, she faced challenges at her work place and made the decision to leave. The incident sparked her to embark on a campaign to attempt to change the public’s perception about mental illness, focusing on employers and staff who struggle with mental health, and so Shifting The Paradigm was born.
“Shifting The Paradigm is a process that requires not just my effort but everyone’s, and I’m hoping this will cause a ripple effect that encourages others to take an interest in the topic and to be more accepting towards those that struggle with these conditions,” Azrina says.
Art has helped the 28-year-old express herself and she highlights it as a form of therapy for those struggling with mental illness in addition to seeking professional help. “My personal choice is painting but it can come in different forms such as performing arts, music or even photography. In fact, there are individuals who are diagnosed and have made careers out of artistic expression, and those are the examples we would like to point to in proving the stigma wrong,” she explains.
We spoke to Azrina about how she has attempted to overcome the challenges she has faced and discuss how the pandemic is affecting the world’s mental health.
What is your opinion about our community’s views and reactions towards mental health?
I think a lot of people are uninformed about mental health and don’t really understand it. It’s a really complicated topic and there are so many types of mental illnesses.
Read up before you speak up, I think more people should be very careful with what they say especially when it’s about something so sensitive. However, I will say that mental health has been getting a lot of attention locally as of late and more people are talking about it which is a really good sign.
We need to keep up the momentum and continue to have conversations about this so that we can strive to create an inclusive society.
What do you think needs to be done to change this mindset?
Normalising or destigmatising mental illness is a very long process that can’t be achieved in just one campaign, but this is an important first step to creating change within society. I’m obviously not the first person to contribute in this space and am following in the footsteps of organisations like MMHA who have been active for the past few decades.
The strategy to destigmatising mental illness is to keep talking about it and educating the public on why it’s such an important topic. This includes getting credible authorities to speak on the subject and broadcasting those messages and conversations to as many people as possible.
How can a person who knows someone with mental health issues help or offer support?
On a personal level you can be there to lend an ear and begin to understand what they’re going through but ultimately it all comes down to seeking professional help. Whether it’s recommending a psychiatrist or going with them for their first visit to be a supporting pillar, do what you can to help their journey.
You’ve mentioned that art helps with expressing yourself and your journey.
I’ve been artistically inclined from a very young age but it wasn’t until I was first diagnosed with DID that I realised its therapeutic effect. Certain emotions, certain feelings can’t quite be put into words and I found art allowed me to speak without words.
I would conceptualise my paintings as a collection of stories brought to life by the emotions and feelings associated with my episodes. My paintings are split into different series that each tell its own story.
How does one achieve a healthy mindset?
Seeking professional help is definitely the first step, this isn’t something where you can go on WebMD and diagnose yourself, you need professionals that really know what they’re talking about.
Getting help and seeing improvement in your condition is the first step to achieving a healthy mindset moving forward.
Some might say that today’s younger generation tends to overuse terms like ‘anxiety’ and ‘depressed’. Some people see it as an attention-seeking matter and that it’s a ‘trendy’ thing to be depressed or have anxiety. What do you have to say about that?
It’s true that the term has been overused and exaggerated and because mental health isn’t something tangible it’s difficult to fact check everyone. I think a lot of it comes down to a lack of education, mental illness isn’t an emotion but rather a chemical imbalance in your brain.
There’s a difference between being sad and being depressed. However even if you don’t have mental illness but your coping mechanism is weak, you can still seek professional help.
How did you attempt to overcome the challenges you faced?
Unfortunately for me, I had a rough start to recovery due to the lack of understanding of the illness as well as fear of the stigma surrounding mental illness. I would consider myself lucky to have friends who made sure I got the help I needed. It took a while before I could begin to accept my condition but ultimately, acceptance is key. Once I accepted that my brain functions differently than others, I made the effort to learn more about mental illnesses, types of therapy, as well as coping mechanisms that help. With mental illness there is no one size fits all approach which is why getting professional treatment is an important step to any recovery regardless of the diagnosis.
I overcame my challenges by seeking professional help, accepting that I am different, educating myself and the people around me on the matter, surrounding myself with people who are supportive and helpful towards my recovery, and finding my own coping mechanism that is not highly dependent on medication.
Could you share some insights or lessons you’ve learnt on your journey so far?
Every person who suffers through mental illness goes through different episodes and a variety of emotions. Personally, some insights or lessons that I could share would mainly be not to dwell in self-pity. Going through something that is stigmatised within the community is hard enough, but to wallow in self-pity and be hard on myself on most days is harder. Mental illness is not something anyone asked for. The three main reasons to mental illness are past trauma, chemical imbalance in the brain, and genetics. It is not something we get to have a say over nor does it depend on the kind of lifestyle you choose. Cutting myself some slack on my ‘off’ days doesn’t make me less of a person than I am on my ‘good’ days. The most valuable lesson I’ve learnt throughout my journey is the discovery of self-love where it doesn’t stop at accepting myself for all that I am, but also making the improvements that I need to be a better version of myself for myself.
With the pandemic and lockdowns happening around the world, how do you think that has affected mental health?
Frankly, I can understand how the pandemic can affect different people in different ways, mostly negatively. As for me, I must admit that I have been fairly lucky to have this time to take time off and really focus on my recovery as well as my passion for art. There are some difficulties in many aspects and mentally, I have had manic and depressive episodes throughout the pandemic, but thankfully, with the support of my mother, siblings, and friends, my mental health hasn’t been greatly compromised.
Although the stigma on people with mental illness is that they are fragile given the circumstances, the situation for me could not have been further from that because I am lucky enough to have been blessed with a strong support system to help me through it all.
Any tips for those who feel like they are stuck in this situation?
I am not certified to give out medical advice. However, based on personal experience, I can share a few tips that hopeful may help others who are in a position that I was once in. As cliched as it sounds, I would really recommend seeking professional help. Do not self-diagnose because regardless of how much we think we know our emotions, there are tests and observations that doctors conduct to come up with a proper diagnosis and the medication that will help with the condition. I would also recommend to venture into different avenues to cope with the condition to which I found art therapy to have been very helpful. A lot of us suffer in silence fearing what our friends and family may think, but believe me when I say that if they love you, they will be there for you no matter how hard it is for them to understand. Do not assume that your mental illness is a burden and that you have to go through it alone.
My last suggestion that I hope would help anyone going through a tough time is that your condition doesn’t define who you are. It doesn’t make you less of a person. If anything, use it as motivation to prove to yourself that even with the obstacles you face, you’ve made it this far. Your support system hasn’t given up on you, so why should you. Going through a mental illness is not easy. At the end of the day, you can have the strongest support system and that won’t matter if you do not learn how to love yourself wholeheartedly. Practice self-love with awareness.