Creating to cope: University students uplifted by artistic hobbies

Students and alumni use creativity to keep mental health struggles at bay.

Lady Midnight performs at The Southern Theater as part of

Andy Kosier

Lady Midnight performs at The Southern Theater as part of “Work in Progress,” a show that showcases original music and written works about mental health and the creative process on Saturday, Feb. 8.

Ksenia Gorinshteyn

Too often, scheduling “me time” is a forgotten task on a student’s to-do list. It becomes less and less of a priority as work and school take over, and mental health is put on the back burner. 

But, a hobby can help.

“Having something to do that isn’t going to cause me stress but still going to motivate me to get up out of bed and start my day has been so helpful,” said Emma Lenz, a junior studying aerospace engineering who recently started learning to play the harp. 

Lenz took her first lessons last fall and immediately fell in love. It was different from her last instrument, the cello, where she felt the pressure to play it perfectly. With the harp, she had more freedom to express herself.

“It’s such a beautiful instrument. There’s no way to get it to sound bad,” Lenz said. “You do have to practice it and repeat the same phrase over and over again. So, if I was busy working on some physics problems and then I come to the harp and I’m playing the same phrase, it helps kind of relax me and put my mind in a different place.”

Like others, Lenz has found solace through her creativity. While her outlet is the harp, for Katy Briggs, it’s theater. 

Briggs, a junior studying theater with an emphasis on social justice and applied drama, wants to get people talking about mental health. As she found herself struggling with her own mental illness in high school, theater was something that she felt gave her a voice.

“The ability to tell stories through theater has always been really empowering to me,” Briggs said. “In high school, my love and passion for theater and music is literally what kept me going to school some days.”

During the spring semester of her freshman year at the University of Minnesota, Briggs moved back to her hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. She needed some time to get back in control of her depression and anxiety but still wanted to pursue theater. Then, she found UpStage Stigma.

The project lets artists express their mental health struggles through performance art in order to break the stigma surrounding mental health. Briggs hopes to expand its reach to the Twin Cities.

“Addressing stigma and mental health through the arts is something that’s really important to me,” Briggs said. “There’s just something about art that opens people’s minds up and draws out empathy. It’s really central to the mission of UpStage Stigma — fostering the sense of empathy and that we are all human.”

Similar events in the Twin Cities echo this sentiment. On Feb. 8, The Southern Theater on West Bank hosted “Work In Progress,” an event where poets, literary writers and musicians shared about their mental health through art. 

When Lynette Reini-Grandell answered the event’s call for artists, she said the first question asked whether she’s had issues with depression and anxiety and if it has ever affected her writing. 

“I was like, I’ve never had to take medication for depression,” said Reini-Grandell, who graduated with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Minnesota. “But then I thought, ‘Yeah, this stuff really tremendously affects me, especially in terms of being afraid to write about certain kinds of things or procrastination.’”

By performing these pieces at “Work In Progress,” it became obvious that art can help start the conversation. 

“Art can be a really powerful tool for engaging with the world around us and trying to affect change,” Briggs said.