Raising awareness through art

Photo exhibition at the University of Tartu Delta Centre.
Photo exhibition at the University of Tartu Delta Centre. Image credit: Helari Hellenurm

This is a story of art, self-development, mindfulness, and mental health.

A couple of years ago I was a student living in the University of Tartu campus dormitory. While living there I had this weird quirk – I constantly found myself thinking what the lives of my fellow dormmates were like. Were they stressed with exams? What were their hobbies and challenges? What would they like to change in our university system? Were they happy? How had they decorated their rooms?

In Tartu we have this well-known dormitory called Mordor that is situated at Narva mnt 89. It was built in 1968 and it has this mystical and bohemian vibe. For me it represented the true student spirit (tudengivaim). And this is the exact place where our story begins. As I said before, I really wanted to find out more about the people living with me in the same building because I believe that a home says a lot about a person. I always felt like even the corridors and walls there had stories to tell. However, as a shy Estonian I was too afraid to go and just ask random students to show me their rooms, to show me their lives. But then came the sad news that this dormitory (Mordor) would be renovated, and we must move out (temporarily). This was my time to act. I decided to make a post in the dormitory’s social media group and ask if maybe someone would let me take photos of their rooms that would soon be demolished and rebuilt.

Dorm room.
444. At times better than a real home.This girl was determined. She removed the old linoleum and renovated the original wooden floorboards. Image credit: private collection

To my surprise, nineteen students opened their doors and gave me a chance to photograph their temporary campus homes. The idea grew into a photo exhibition that was shown at the University of Tartu Delta Centre, Narva College, and in the University of Tartu Library. Every art piece was a collage of the photos of the actual door and dorm room at Narva mnt 89. Some lived alone and some shared the room with a friend or a stranger. The photos were printed on plywood to give a better idea of the atmosphere in Mordor. This project got funding*, positive feedback, and was also introduced in an Estonian television news program. However, of course the pandemic also influenced this art project, and it was much harder to organize everything. You can see all the photos from the exhibition here.

It is important to mention that this project has not only been about the dormitory’s rooms and doors. For me it represents capturing student history and art, capturing the lives of our students. For example, the titles of the photos were also special. I asked every student who participated in the project to think about what this dormitory and this experience meant for them. For some it meant a “feeling of community”, “cave-home”, or “mandatory campus experience”. Overall, Narva mnt 89 was like an enormous DIY (do-it-yourself) project where habitants could express their creativity in various ways.

Dorm room.
339. Pink, warm and inspiring Image credit: private collection

This project showed me that it is important to think about and to talk about students’ well-being. Of course, it is necessary to renovate and improve the safety of our buildings. However, students also need to express their creativity, because engaging in creative activities is beneficial to our mental health. Hence, the representatives of the campus could increase dialogue with the inhabitants of dormitories to better address the needs of our students.

It is inspiring to see that the importance of mental health is being talked about more and more. Now that I am an alumna, postgraduate, and an employee of the University of Tartu, I can see firsthand the efforts our university makes to care for the mental health of our university family (ülikoolipere). Of course, it is difficult, as our society sometimes still has outdated values and beliefs, and due to that mental health can still be a kind of taboo topic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has widened the discussion on mental health, and institutions worldwide have worked extremely hard to raise awareness on these topics. However, this period has been difficult. We quickly had to adapt to the new situation and the information was constantly changing. All of this caused a lot of anxiety, stress, and worry. It is difficult to assess the long-term consequences of the pandemic and the effect it has had on our mental health. I recently started to think what if mental health was a real person named Mental Health? How would you introduce this person? Is your Mental Health strong, out-going, modest, withdrawn, or ignored? Taking good care of mental health is in our own hands, and we can shape its character and contribute to its development. When we see that our friend is having a rough time, we support and help out. So why don’t we help ourselves in the same way? I have listed here five thoughts** and ideas on how to start noticing your own well-being and the well-being of those around you.

Illustration of two people talking.
Illustration credit: Freepik

☀️ Taking care of one’s mental health is a big and important project that everyone will benefit from. It is not a marathon or a diet. I see taking good care of your own mental health as healthy nutrition. At first it can be difficult and confusing, but soon enough it will come naturally. Remember that all your feelings and emotions are valid, and you should not repress them. Mental health needs to be addressed meaningfully, and you need to find the method that is right for you. You can read books on mental health and experiment with different techniques (some of my favorites are the tick-toc technique and mindfulness exercises). Or maybe analyzing and discussing your concerns and challenges with a psychologist works for you. Of course, there are also other excellent alternative methods you can explore, like meditation, tea ceremonies, or Zen and mindfulness practices.

If you are interested in more tips and how to support yourself, check out this website called peaasi.ee/en. They have a lot of recommendations on movement, sleep and rest, mindful eating, supportive relationships, and pleasant emotions. This platform is operated by the Estonian NGO Peaasjad (Head Matters), and their specialists have worked really hard to promote the mental health of Estonian youth. 

☀️ Asking and looking for help is normal and a smart move. This has been said a lot, but I feel it should be repeated again. We have a multilevel support system here at the University of Tartu. As a student, if you have a concern, you can ask for guidance from the University of Tartu Student Union. For example, if you feel that something is unfair in the organization of studies or that the study environment needs some improvement, turn to your institute’s student representatives first. You can find more information about the student union’s activities on their website.

Furthermore, our university has its own Counselling Center which offers FREE career and psychological counselling and support for students with special needs. In addition, they have student advisers in case you have general questions related to study organization and regulations. Find more information about our professional specialists and book an appointment here. I really love their slogan: “You study, we support!” (Sina õpid, meie toetame!).

It is also worth mentioning that if you have a family doctor here in Estonia, he or she can refer you to a psychologist here in Tartu/Estonia. I recommend starting by reading this article called “Mental health matters – where to turn for help in Estonia?” that was published in Estonian World.

☀️ “Everyone has their own ways of expression. I believe we all have a lot to say but finding ways to say it is more than half the battle.” – Criss Jami

In my personal experience, it is important to feel at home even in a dormitory or shared apartment, and a good way to overcome obstacles is to use creativity. Home should be a place where you can charge your batteries, feel safe, and get ready for new adventures. Even though nowadays we cannot always paint the doors and floors of our dorm rooms or rented flats, there are other ways to make your space one of a kind (small details, photos).

☀️ Observe and notice your friends, family members, course mates and colleagues. Often those who seem the happiest can be struggling and in need of support and guidance. There are a lot of early warning signs that can indicate that someone is struggling. Friendship plays an important role in the protection of our mental health. We all need and deserve a support system, but at the same time we should remember that we are never responsible for another person’s mental health.

☀️ Last but not least, I want to share my personal favorite quote that I live by: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone,” by Neale Donald Walsch. At first, I was extremely sad and disappointed that my dorm room was demolished and rebuilt (to be more dramatic, I basically lost my home). However, looking back, I now understand that it was time for new adventures and new challenges.

Dorm room.
This was my room in Mordor. The door painting and red wallpaper were there already when I moved in. I felt that the room was too red for my taste and decided to apply some white wallpaper with the help of a YouTube tutorial 107-Do-it-yourself. Image credit: private collection

In conclusion, the most important is to be compassionate with yourself and with your new friend Mental Health. Progress from anxiety, depression and burnout does not happen overnight. As a perfectionist, I often forget this part and will blame myself for not trying hard enough. In my experience, it is easier to forgive your friends and family, but extremely hard to be compassionate and patient with yourself.

When was the last time you took your good old friend Mental Health on a date?

*The art project, named Mordor 89, was funded by Archimedes Foundation, and our team consisted of five people: Mariana Tulf, Eduard Pavlov, Hanna Eliisa Madilainen, Leila Niilus and Laura Ermel.

**These ideas are based on my personal journey and on consultation with a specialist conducted for the purpose of this blog post.

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