The Most Potent Medicine: D.C. Creatives Talk Mental Health
May 1, 2023 @ 2:00pm
Three D.C. creatives on how to support, engage and collaborate during Mental Health Awareness Month.
The District is brimming with opportunities to support mental health awareness, from self-care pop-ups celebrating the diversity of D.C.’s service industry to sensory experiences promoting self-expression through food and art. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month (MHAM), we caught up with three local community builders in this space: Erica Christian, founder of Empowering the Diner and creator of Satiated; Carter Umhau, a licensed psychotherapist, artist and writer who works to create healing spaces that can be integrated into people’s everyday lives; and artist Janelle Whisenant, whose work focuses on themes of mental health. Read on for their insight into how to integrate mental health awareness into your everyday lives and social experiences.
District Fray: What does MHAM mean to you?
Carter Umhau: My hope is that bringing awareness to mental health issues also means bringing awareness to the myriad ways diverse struggles require diverse solutions of care — in the systemic and the deeply specific and creatively personal.
Janelle Whisenant: MHAM, in its simplest yet likely most important detail, reminds us to reach out to friends and family — maybe those you haven’t heard from in a while — or just to check in and let someone know you love them or are thinking of them. We never know when something so simple as a hello, a smile or an act of kindness can alter someone’s day — or life.
How did you combine your creative pursuits with mental health?
Erica Christian: I’ve always been a huge advocate for being able to access wonder and exploration in process toward engaging with food and beverage. There’s a lot of response to Black trauma around chronic illness and disability, but there’s not a lot of spaces where we’re saying, “Hey, this is what joy means to us. This is what pleasure means to us. This is what it means for us to explore.” And I think that exploration is key to mental health in general.
Umhau: As an artist and poet first, I have always seen creativity as the most potent medicine for wellbeing, and the most powerful tool for healing and emotional processing. Since becoming a therapist, I have worked to integrate creative expression into more traditional client work because I believe it’s more effective in building resiliency and deep connection to the self that’s necessary for healing.
Whisenant: I ended up at the University of Maryland in the MFA program, creating installations involving ripped up stuffed animals and repurposed toys, mixed with line work and painting — essentially, creating an unspoken language about my past, my subconscious feelings and design. I believe in the power of letting others create without pressure and without judgment to release and free their minds of burdens, even temporarily.
How are you activating during MHAM?
Christian: I do a lot of speaking out about my identity and what that means for me, but I also do a lot of speaking out and activating around people having access to what pleases them, and access to safely exploring that. I’m very blessed to be surrounded by a community that’s always considering mental health. It’s less about it being an initiative and more about it being a way of life for us. We’re holding each other accountable to the way we say we want to live. If we say we want to slow down, how are we actually integrating that into our work?
Umhau: I am expanding my one-on-one coaching offerings, and beginning a regular, therapeutic art journaling group for people to begin exploring the regular practice of art making as self-exploration, self-care and emotional processing.
Whisenant: One of the beautiful opportunities about simultaneously working in the bar and restaurant industry while being an artist is the natural possibility of social connections that occur at any given time. I’ve been inspired to activate a charity drink of my creation on our menu at Grand Duchess for the month of May, with a percentage of the sales to be donated to a charity for mental health awareness and support of my choosing. I’d also like to include my art and local artists in the event, but I am still in brainstorming mode.
Explore more of Christian’s ventures at empoweringthediner.com and by following her on Instagram @empoweringthediner, @areyousatiated and @ericasade08.
Learn more about Umhau at carterumhau.com and follow her on Instagram @carterfleet.
Check out Whisenant’s work at janellewhisenant.com and follow her on Instagram @janellewhisenant.
More Locals to Follow
Follow these six community builders and mental health advocates who collaborate with other locals in hospitality, the arts and other creative endeavors to provide safe spaces and engaging events in the District.
Multidisciplinary designer, holistic health practitioner and creator of Disco Mary Collective. discomary.com // @discomarycollective
Owner and lead designer of Lo Bessette Co. lobessette.co // @lobeanie
D.C.-based therapist and conceptual artist. rachelklebanov.com
Maya Makin + Ashley Amado
Founders of Stirred Up DC and creators of Hot Girls Go To Therapy. @stirredupdc
Creator of SwapDC, an initiative to bring awareness to consumerism. swapdc.com // @swapdc
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