Southeast Missouri State University student publication

The art of mental health: Using creativity to cope with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts

Monday, March 28, 2022

Student teacher and Arts Council director Kelly Downes is creating a collection of artwork to send to friends and family to honor the memory of her closest friend, Matthew McDonald, who recently took his life.

“My dearest friend loved art so much, and I know that he clinged to it, that was his hope,” Downes said. “He was handsome, had a wonderful job, had tons of friends, and every single person who knew him is floored [by his death]; there is no bottom.”

Their friendship began on their first day of college at Michigan State, where they walked along the Red Cedar River to the library. They shared a love of books, poems and old jazz records. Downes said from the first day they met, they were “eternally connected.”

“Some of the happiest and holiest times of my life belong to Matthew,” Downes said. “I remember spending an entire afternoon with Matthew in absolute silence in a zen garden in Chicago. That was how much we loved each other. Love filled in the spaces where words failed.”

This isn’t the first time suicide has impacted Downes’ life. She lost her cousin Michael when he was 17 years old. Downes said her family experienced other suicides of young people when she herself was young.

Kelly Downes working on a portrait of her late best friend Matthew McDonald and his grandmother. She is keeping his memory alive and honoring him by sharing her art that features him, with his loved ones.
Photo by Cynthia Wallman

“My first understanding of life was this really tangible feeling of death,” she said. “I feel like suicide was always something that was around but not discussed, and that had really intense impact on my own mental health. I’ve been an artist my whole life, but I haven’t been mentally well my whole life. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that; as a sensitive, vulnerable human being, the world feels super heavy a lot of the time.”

Downes said she has been interested in art for as long she could remember. She shares her passion for art with her father, who is also an artist.

She uses the act of art as a form of mental health therapy.

“I use my process to process; it’s the only way,” Downes said. “I’ve tried all the other things. As far as art and therapy, it gives a structure to that. I haven’t found a way that feels as real to me as to be able to process as doing it through art and the feedback that I get because it takes a long time to process.”

Downes is creating a series of cyanotypes to process the death of her friend and her cousin. A cyanotype is a photographic printing process that produces a cyan-blue print. She also drew inspiration from the band My Morning Jacket; their songs “Strangulation” and “Dondante” are about their bandmate Aaron Todovich, who died by suicide.

“The way that I keep these people alive and honor the tragedy — without staying stuck in the tragedy — is by using art to advocate for other people by letting them know there are people who care,” Downes said. “If there is any way I can tell one person, just to wait one more day to see if it changes, then I’m honoring them.”

Downes suggests mindfulness, therapy and mediation as great tools to strengthen mental health. She teaches yoga at the Arts Council of Southeast Missouri and Yoga East. She also recommends painting with watercolor or creating an abstract to help manage mental health.

“I have had very intense experiences, very beautiful artistic experiences, where what I was going through mentally was very much reflected back to me on the canvas, and all the sudden, the answer would come forward,” she said.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention line at 1 (800) 273-TALK (8255).