Published first in New Naratif
In a high-ceilinged loft apartment in downtown Yangon, a mixed group of activists and journalists, some regulars and some newcomers, take their seats on the floor around several circular, wooden tables laden with jars of paint, brushes and palettes. The bright, airy space is filled with art in various forms: there are handbound books scattered around the room and large murals painted directly onto the concrete walls.
But against this inviting backdrop, one decoration stands out, reminding the group why they are all gathered there. Hanging in a corner is a black T-shirt displaying the words “Everything will be OK”, echoing the shirt a 19-year-old protester named Angel wore when she was gunned down by Myanmar security forces in March. She is one of more than 850 civilians killed since the military staged a coup on 1 February.
The visitors have come to participate in an art therapy session hosted by Ayathakan (in Myanmar, “to savour something”), a makeshift community centre for artists. The group has hosted these gatherings every weekend since the beginning of April to help those resisting the coup cope with the psychological effects of the death and destruction around them.
M, one of the lead organisers of the weekly sessions, which are called ARTyathakan, says: “When [the coup] happened, everyone was just online, and people stopped trusting one another, and our networks started to get smaller, and people stopped making new friends or seeing old ones.”
Mental illness carries a heavy stigma in Myanmar. Conversations around mental health can attract discrimination within communities, and even within families. The notions of honour and saving face are pervasive in Myanmar society and discourage people from admitting they need mental health treatment.
But following the double shock of the COVID-19 pandemic and the military coup in February, psychologists and activists in Myanmar began stressing the need for people to find opportunities and spaces to explore their emotions safely. Phyu Pannu Khin, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Vermont whose father was once a political prisoner, started sharing Myanmar-language graphics on Twitter in the wake of the coup to help people understand and manage their reactions to grief and trauma. She was surprised when her posts received hundreds of retweets and even more likes, and even more so when strangers began messaging her.
One recurring topic in these messages was survivor’s guilt, especially from people whose loved ones had been imprisoned or killed. They confessed that they keep thinking that they could have done something to protect that person, Pannu tells New Naratif.
“If you smile even just for a moment, or even if you eat a meal—in general, doing things that you need to do to keep yourself alive, like even merely sleeping at night—it can feel like you’re doing something wrong,” Pannu says. “You think, my friends are on the run or in the jungle, while I get to sleep on a pillow.”
M sought to make ARTyathakan a comfortable environment where Yangon residents could get together in person and feel at ease talking about their emotions and experiences.
“I noticed that since February, everyone, including myself—that our mental health was deteriorating. We were all feeling a lot,” she says. “If our brains stop functioning, then that affects everything else. I thought, what if we got together and had these discussions?”
A friend of M’s had participated in art therapy before through a Yangon-based clinic called Counselling Corner, and they proposed the technique to the artists at Ayathakan as an alternative to traditional group therapy sessions.
“Somebody who doesn’t want to talk can still draw their feelings,” M says. “If you go to normal therapy, you use speech, but for those who can’t bring themselves to speak about their feelings, I thought it might be easier for them to draw what they’re feeling instead.”
Each ARTyathakan session is supervised by a therapist from Counselling Corner, who begins by assuring the participants that they are in a safe space. Pannu describes a safe space as one “where you’re aware that people have very different life experiences and [everyone is] respectful of each person’s reactions and experiences. It’s a space where everyone appreciates and celebrates your honesty and vulnerability, and there are no right or wrong reactions”.
As the ARTyathakan session goes on, gentle background music plays while participants draw whatever they are feeling or thinking. Later, each person shares the thoughts and feelings behind their drawing. In previous sessions, attendees have said they no longer know how to appreciate moments of joy without also feeling guilt; some have recalled happy memories and wonder if they will get to meet up with their friends and families again; others have said they feel helpless and insignificant, even after putting countless hours into political activism.
M notes that some participants do not realise how much they have been holding back, and sometimes, to their own surprise, they find themselves crying in the middle of a session.
Khin, a local activist who discovered ARTyathakan through Instagram and has attended one session, describes being attracted to “the idea of having a set time to dedicate to making art, and having a space to explore my emotions”.
“It’s sometimes difficult to share openly with close friends or family, but in a group of strangers, somehow it feels more freeing,” Khin says. “I left the session feeling a sense of relief.”
But personal relief is not the only function art therapy serves in post-coup Myanmar. Pannu says psychological self-care is in itself an act of resistance against authoritarianism.
“I tell myself that I need to recharge myself actively in order to take care of the community and to contribute to our revolution in my best capacity,” Pannu says. “This is true for all of us: truly taking care of ourselves is a form of activism under the dictatorship, which wants us to suffer. In order to sustain our efforts for advocacy and activism in this long-term fight, we cannot get burned out.”
Local activists are taking this point to heart. Since the coup, Nandar, a feminist activist who runs the podcast G-Taw Zagar Wyne, began releasing a series of episodes focusing on mental health. The episodes tackle topics such as the seven stages of grief and how to talk to children about mental health. Each episode features a trained Myanmar therapist. She says she launched the series because it feels like “a conversation that Myanmar people need right now”.
“It’s not just about the individual anymore. [The repercussions of the coup] became a collective pain, a collective loss, a collective grieving. And when there’s this collective suffering, [I realised that] this needs to be talked about, and that we need platforms where we can hold these discussions and listen to these conversations. It was an emergency need,” Nandar says.
So far, Nandar says she has received messages from a range of listeners, from activists to village elders, who have thanked her for broadcasting conversations about mental health.
“I felt like it was an achievement that we could inspire and encourage people to realise that the emotions they were feeling were normal,” she says.
Since February, nearly 6,000 people have been arrested nationwide for alleged anti-coup activities. Activists and journalists, who make up a significant proportion of ARTyathakan’s participants, are routinely targeted by the military and police for arbitrary detention and violence. Even a space that is safe for art therapy is not necessarily safe from Myanmar’s military authorities.
Security forces have been targeting large congregations of people, and M fears that the hosts and participants might face charges if informers were to find out about ARTyathakan, even though the organisers insist the gatherings are apolitical.
To mitigate these concerns, Ayathakan initially recruited participants to its art therapy sessions strictly through word of mouth. But after two months, M and the other organisers realised that demand for art therapy was more widespread than they anticipated, so in June, they began publicising their services on social media. However, due to safety concerns, the exact times and locations of sessions are only released to verified participants. Instead of advertising the sessions as art therapy, the organisers have begun using the more innocuous term “tea and draw”.
Pannu, the PhD student, says people weathering the psychological effects of the coup should attend to their mental health even if they cannot access ARTyathakan sessions or other therapy options in Myanmar. One option for those without a physical safe space is to create an “emotional safe space”, which can take the form of meditating, thinking about a loved one or drawing on religious faith and praying—anything to conjure “some sort of psychological and emotional protection”.
Pannu encourages opponents of military rule to think of themselves as trees during a storm. She says: “It’s normal to shake. All of us will shake because we’re in the midst of a storm, but we can also think about roots, and the stronger the roots are, the more likely that the tree will stand. So I [ask people]: what are your roots? We have to hold onto [these roots]. And they can be political beliefs, it can be family, it can be religion—whatever gives us hope.”
If you are interested in participating in the art therapy sessions, please get in touch with Ayathakan.