Vanessa Smith, Mental Health Advocate and Urban Planner, on Using the Arts & Cross-Disciplines to Challenge Stereotypes

NameVanessa Monique Smith
Role: Design Strategist and Urban Planner
Based in: New York

Vanessa is a design strategist and urban planner that has directed programs across public and private sectors in New York City and abroad. Her work is driven by the idea that people’s interactions and reactions to places, spaces, and systems make our cities human. Vanessa uses creative methods and communication to engage people around place-based topics, and she has created interdisciplinary projects to improve service delivery, expand community-based assets, and achieve policy initiatives. She is currently an urban planner at Hester Street, a planning, design, and community development non-profit. Before returning to her planning roots, she developed and directed the mental health initiative, NYC Mural Arts Project at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH). She co-founded and grew the social impact firm, 3×3 Design, where she was Director of Outreach and Research for over 4 years.  She has an MS in Urban Planning from Columbia University and a BA in Anthropology from the University of Chicago.

1. In your words, describe who you are 

A work in progress.

2. What made you passionate about mental health awareness? 

Mental health and mental illness are still stigmatized topics that aren’t discussed as much as they should be in constructive settings and alongside community development topics. NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene shares that 1 in 5 New Yorkers experiences a mental health disorder in a given year. Given that fact and the stigma that pervades society, it’s necessary to start discussing health in relation to the body and mind, and how our health interfaces with other aspects of society in our cities and towns. This affects all of us. 

“I Like You the Way You Are — Mental Health Has Many Faces” 4000 square foot mural in the Bronx developed with muralist Tova Synder

I think of several years back, about the suicide of a friend and 2 attempted suicides by others. It was painful. Sometimes people feel isolated like they can’t talk about what they are experiencing. If we don’t share our feelings it’s harder to work through challenges with a network of support. I feel we are starting to talk more about these issues, but I want there to be spaces for all of us to share our mental health and not fear judgement at the individual level.  And at a societal level, I want to incorporate mental health discussions into our policy and designs of services and spaces. 

3. Could you describe the NYC Mural Arts Project and what your role was? For first time readers, what is the role of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene? 

In October 2016, I launched the NYC Mural Arts Project within the NYC Department of Health and ran the program for three years. NYCMAP uses a collective mural making process to discuss mental health topics and foster relationship building among residents and community based organizations across New York City. I worked with artists, various community groups, people living with a mental health condition and the community at large to design and fabricate large scale, place-based murals. Through our 9 month process, using workshops and public events, we discovered the mural theme, co-designed the mural, and painted and installed the public artwork in highly visible locations across the 5 boroughs. For a given project, hundreds of people gave their support or input to make the mural. The mural fabrication and installation process enable a mural’s longevity for decades, so murals produced (some up to 4,000 square feet and 60 feet up in the air) are a longstanding testament to those conversations and community connections. 

The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) supports this program through City and State funding. DOHMH aim to increase access to supports outside of traditional clinical settings, while reducing stigmas and cultural barriers to mental health care. 

4. Can you highlight some of the mental health activists or artists you worked with at the NYC Mural Arts Project? 

Sure. First, I think the mental health peers (people with lived experience with a mental health condition) and mental health peer specialists (trained and certified people with a mental health condition who provide support and guidance to peers) I worked with were the backbone of each project.  They guided each project and worked with other residents to explore mental health topics in an informed and impassioned way. Second, there are several artists I worked with- Christopher Cardinale, Jon ‘Phes’ Souza, Aaron Lazansky, Alice Mizrachi, and Julia Cocuzza– come to mind that drove this type of immersive and large scale project. 

To make the scale of these murals and install them across NYC, in physically complex and dense backdrops, it truly ‘takes a village’ to make it all happen.  I am grateful for the range of people, with their skills and their voices, that worked with me to make these murals all over New York from the Bronx down to Staten Island. 

Mental health peers, students, and families explore mural symbols at Brooklyn Public Library event. 
One People- Eradicating labels and nurturing mental health support” (muralist Chirstopher Cardinale) installed in Brooklyn, NY
Mural installation for “Reflections of Ourselves and Each Other” with muralist Aaron Lazansky. 

5. What do you think about the role of art in fighting mental health stigma or bringing communities together?

Art as a ‘civic practice’ allows an artist to focus on building trust among the members of a community and on fostering a sense of belonging with all people involved throughout the creative process. Through this lens, art can promote rich conversations around place-based issues that affect mental health outcomes, while highlighting the humanity and power of the people involved in each community-driven project.  Mental health peers help structure these conversations around the mural theme and design in dialogue with other community members. These conversations aim at challenging stereotypes and creating a common language around mental health and mental illness for everyone involved.  

For example, in one project we reviewed the draft of the mural with mothers from a partnering school. While discussing possible designs to express mental health topics, one mother shared that she lived with being bi-polar and explained how she works through her ups and downs, while staying engaged in the school and with her kids. It was moving because she not only shared something so personal in a public forum, but also created a constructive platform to talk about her honest experience living with a mental illness.  Other people started sharing experiences they face or how they support someone they love that may be dealing with depression, anxiety, etc. It was a watershed moment among friends, colleagues and strangers. 

6. As an urban planner, what are some ideas you have on how to incorporate holistic wellness into broader city policies? 

This is a great question and one I am thinking a lot about recently. One of the biggest challenges I see is how can we promote wellness alongside policies, programs, and design that address climate change? The effects of climate change and disaster response affect people differently, and communities that have been historically marginalized will feel the effects of climate change more dramatically. 

I think about a scene in the movie Parasite during a heavy rain storm. One family’s home is flooded, they lose their possessions and have to spend the night in a gym with hundreds of other people affected by the storm.  Another family is able to enjoy watching the storm in spacious comfort on higher ground. How does the trauma of dealing with the rain, loss of your home, and the uncertainty of tomorrow burden people? How do our urban systems, design and policies affect our wellbeing and support (or hinder) us?  

Thinking about the first family’s experience we could incorporate a lens of mental health into: new policy around rapid response after a disaster, retrofitting public infrastructure and housing, flood mitigation, urban design, and new types of place-based services and programs we can develop in and with our communities. I am half Puerto Rican, and that scene resonated with me as I think about how my family and others have managed the after effects of Hurricane Maria and the earthquakes of the past few months. The anxiety and uncertainty of these situations can have a heavy effect on wellbeing. 

7. Describe your wellness regimen if you have one (i.e., morning routines or evening rituals). What are some actions you take to keep yourself well (mentally, spiritually, physically, and emotionally)?

Over the years, the one thing I find constant in my routine, wherever I am, is carving out time to walk with no specific destination, but to wander mindfully. It helps me find awareness and explore my thoughts in relation to the people, activities, architecture, and infrastructure around me. I find it a meditative practice that can help me gain balance, clarity, and creativity. 

8. Would you care to share a couple of your favorite wellness and/or skincare picks? 

Cooking is a creative driver for me; by using all the senses it helps me feel grounded in the present, which, at times, can be difficult. Flavors of food pervade everything we eat, they affect our perception and give us an instant feeling in the moment. Combining foods and flavors is an interplay that, at first glance, don’t appear complimentary but can support each other. Thinking about this, it mirrors how I strive for wellness: taking different experiences, beauty and pain in life with different people and experiences, and finding complementary ways to grow from and with those people, places, and experiences that are a part of you. A small dash of sugar can play well with acid or salt. Sharing this with others and seeing how they enjoy the food enlivens the experience. 

Jumping to a different topic- skincare- I definitely like routine here, and mixing high and low price points. Currently, I am using an Avocado Facial Toner, The Ordinary’s Hyaluronic Acid Serum and Caffeine Solution Eye Serum, Sunday Riley’s C.E.O Vitamin C Brightening Serum, face cream, and Nature Republic’s SPF 50 Daily Sun Block. At night, I swap out the vitamin c serum and sunscreen for Ole Henriksen’s Retin-ALT power serum. 

9. Letters to My Younger Self:  If you had any advice to give to your younger self, what would it be? 

Be honest with your needs and share what you’re feeling with others. Since ATEM also has skincare, I would also tell my younger self to use sunscreen to protect the skin and get a serum! But really, communicate those feelings, they’re real and should be shared.

For access to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Mental Health Hotline, please click here.

Interview by Susan Yoomin Im and Theophila Lee

Edited by Susan Im

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