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5 Works of Art That Express Mental Illness

By: Leah Hovey

It is famously quoted time and time again that the most creative individuals often get their ideas from tragedy occurring within their lives. A great mind can often come with an even greater sense of sadness within it. Comedians who are severely depressed, actors who have anxiety disorders, singers who use music to escape their lives, and artists who create as a means of therapeutic expression. While the public may stand in awe, the artists themselves could view their masterpiece as a visual representation of the darkness inside of them. This is why paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photographs are so intriguing to viewers; there are real feelings behind these pieces.

We have complied a list of our 5 favourite works of art that specifically reflect mental illnesses and educate viewers on the meaning behind them.

1. At Eternity's Gate by Vincent van Gogh

Starting with one of our most popular artists, the vast majority know van Gogh from his beautiful pastel and oil paintings such as The Starry Night or Irises. Aside from the beautiful depictions of the nature around him, Van Gogh was much more troubled on the inside. He suffered from psychotic outbursts, alcoholic behaviours, epileptic seizures, and a modern-day-diagnosis of bipolar disorder. His death became a large part of his legacy, as he committed suicide in 1890 because he could not take the constant suffering of his mental illnesses coupled with the hardships he was forced to face. The same year of his death, Van Gogh created one of his most influential works, which was titled At Eternity’s Gate (A Sorrowing Old Man). This oil painting depicts an older man sitting with a defeated disposition, cradling his head in his hands. While this picture was a portrait, this is also a recreation image of himself and the hopelessness he faced at the end of his life.

2. Inktober Illness Series by Shawn Coss

Shawn is one of the main illustrators for the web-series Cyanide & Happiness and has been a very influential part of the conversation around mental illness. He created the Inktober Illness series in 2016 when he participated in the popular online artistic challenge Inktober. He focused on depicting various mental illnesses as dark, disturbing creatures to try and show exactly what the mental illnesses can feel like at times. While we all know that those who have mental illness are not monsters, there are times where it can feel as though your mental illness has a mind of its own and is truly a frightening beast. These extremely diverse depictions of these mental illnesses have gained a positive reputation online.

3. Between by Fleur Alston

This stunning photo series is a piece of artwork done by 42-year-old Fleur Alston. She is well-known for her brilliant capture of raw, human emotion within her photographs. She loves taking photographs of her family, especially her children, and this is how this photography series was created. Her daughter suffers from an anxiety disorder and frequent panic attacks. Fleur wanted to photograph her to help show her how beautiful and powerful she could be, as well as show the crippling, suffocating feeling that occurs when an individual has a panic attack. Many describe having a panic attack as though you are drowning or suffocating; so, this is how Fleur tried to recreate this feeling.

4. Mandala of Pills by Van Lieshout VI

This work of realism is one of the most thought-provoking and interesting pieces exhibited within the past century. Van Lieshout created a physical sculpture that was entirely made up of pills for various mental illnesses. A mandala is supposed to represent consistency and a stable pattern, yet Van Lieshout gives a contrast to this theme by introducing the complications and chaos that can come from prescription medication. It can be challenging for individuals to find the right medication; the process can take years. This is why this piece is so influential to those who are suffering at the hands of mental illness. Future works within her series of medication will be featured soon.

5. Isolation by Sabrina Chevallier

Sabrina Chevallier, a photographer from Toronto, created the final piece of artwork being analyzed. Sabrina has struggled with depression most of her life, and she finds that using photography as a means of expression helps her cope with this mental illness. The hands in this image are meant to represent people around you. Either stressors that contribute to your anxiety/depression, individuals judging you, or helping hands that are extended towards you. There may be many influencers surrounding you, but at the end of the day, it is up to you to choose how to respond.

Reflecting on this series of pieces can evoke some strong feelings within you. Choose to ask for help when you need it. Support can make a significant difference in how we deal with our circumstances.

If you or someone you love is experiencing significant distress, please call 416-408-4357 (416-408-HELP) (Toronto Distress Line). If this is an emergency, please call 911.


Alston, F. (2013). Between [Photograph found in Between-Family Project]. Retrieved September 13, 2018, from (Originally photographed 2013, June 21)

Chevallier, S. (2018). Isolation [Photograph found in Depression Series, Toronto]. Retrieved September 13, 2018, from (Originally photographed 2018, May 11)

Coss, S. (2016). Social Anxiety Disorder [Illustration found in Inktober Illness 2016]. Retrieved September 13, 2018, from

Gogh, V. V. (1980). At Eternity's Gate [Saint-Rémy de Provence]. Retrieved September 13, 2018, from

Lieshout VI, V. (2017). Mandala of Pills [Painting found in Art Project 40x40, Tuur Gallery,

Venlo, The Netherlands]. Retrieved September 13, 2018, from of-pills

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