Heard on Campus: Penn State Laureate William Doan on art and mental health

February 17, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — William Doan, professor of theater in the College of Arts and Architecture and artist-in-residence in the College of Nursing, spoke at the Penn State Forum Speaker Series on Feb. 17 at University Park. Doan gave a talked titled “The Anxiety Project: An Artist’s Look at Mental Health and Wellness,” exploring his own personal journey living with anxiety and depression since boyhood through a lens of biology, evolution, history, religion, socioeconomic status and other topics.

“Anxiety and depression need you to shut down and isolate yourself. Vulnerability, which can be an antidote, requires you to stay connected and have empathy for yourself and for others,” Doan said. “But being vulnerable is hard work, especially when your life has conditioned you to a kind of masculinity that expects you to behave as if you’re invulnerable. The work of vulnerability is the work I’m doing right now by being here with you when every fiber of my being would rather be in my studio surrounded by my pens and watercolors.”

As the Penn State Laureate for the 2019–20 academic year, Doan is exploring the intersections of art, science and mental health through interactive experiencesworkshops and discussions. His current efforts, “The Anxiety Project,” started several years ago and now includes more than 500 drawings, four graphic medicine publications and a 50-minute live performance. His newest performance piece, “Frozen in The Toilet Paper Aisle of Life,” relives a recent panic attack he experienced while shopping in a big-box store, along with experiences from his childhood.

During the presentation, Doan shared his personal story of living with anxiety and depression and how drawing became a way for him to show what it’s like to live with mental health issues when words could not describe what was going on in his brain.  

“Science, philosophy, law, psychology, literature, history and art have all taken up the causes of anxiety and depression,” Doan said. “For me, making art about living with anxiety and depression has at times been painful, lonely and stressful. The creative process takes me through a deep sustained look at my past, all while asking how I can do this without judging myself, my family or the social circumstances that aren't even of my own making.”

At the event, Doan noted that anxiety disorders have been identified as the most common mental illness in the U.S. affecting 40 million adults aged 18 and older, and that 17 million adults had a major depressive episode last year.  

Doan has co-authored three books and written several plays and scholarly articles. His graphic narratives have been published in the Annals of Internal Medicine/Graphic Medicine. He is the past president of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education and a fellow in the College of Fellows of The American Theatre.

“I’ve come to accept that anxiety and depression do live deep in my brain and perhaps deep in my body. The result of some combination of possible reasons — an accumulation of all of life’s events, a crack in my DNA, a collision of one of the neuronal highways in my brain,” Doan said. “I’ve also learned that a diagnosis is not necessarily a destiny. Talking about living with anxiety and depression and listening to others is key to the vulnerability it takes to be present to your life and to the lives of others. It's not about being brave in the face of stigma or resilient in the face of adversity. It’s about trying, as we say in the theaterto make the invisible visible.

The Penn State Forum Speaker Series is open to the general public. Tickets for the Penn State Forum are $25 and include a buffet lunch. Tickets may be purchased through the id+ office in 103 HUB-Robeson Center, or by calling 814-865-7590 or emailing idcard@psu.edu. For more information, visit sites.psu.edu/forum.


Last Updated February 18, 2020