May is Mental Health Month

by Laura Lynch, LCSW, LIfe Coach

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I would not be doing my job if I did write a little about May being Mental Health Month. This year Mental Health America is encouraging people who live with mental illness to share their stories and experiences.  Mental Health America is like a very large support group with focus on the people who have mental illness, in other words a grass roots organization that has been around for 65 years.  (It is similar to National Alliance on Mental Illness).  It gives voice to those who often have no voice.

This article is Part I of a two Part Article.

My Annual Art Project

In my work as a clinical social worker in a Partial Hospitalization Program (since 2004) I have used this month to facilitate a group art project with the clients. The project has a two-fold purpose – as a form of art therapy, and whenever possible to help educate others.

It provides an outlet for clients, some of whom are amazingly talented.  For those who are unable to participate without hands on help, them I (or their peers) will give them whatever help is needed. (One year with a blind patient I covered my hand with their and we did a drawing together). It should be noted that many of our clients stay for months in our program, and many return, so there is a basic comfort level.  For people who are brand new to our program, or brand new to their diagnoses, it is a welcome relief to do something creative.  While I encourage 100% participation, if a client is truly not interested, or too paranoid, then I don’t push.

I admit to personal satisfaction, since art was my “first love” and it gives me an opportunity to get creative.  This is done with no budget, I just use whatever materials happen to be available.  I brainstorm an idea that seems viable, and has some coherency.  My ideas do not necessarily follow MHA’s annual theme if it can’t be conveyed easily through art.   It is gratifying to us when the project is finished and installed.  The art work lets clients have individual expression while working as a team under an overarching framework.  I don’t have the luxury of a corporation that gets to “select” their team. Clients have the opportunity to use talents, express their thoughts, and get some recognition.  I always integrate the weeks of doing the art project into various groups. I am always amazed with the results.

I also had a cool thing happen last week. A friend who owns a downtown art gallery in Las Vegas remembered I had done a patch quilt with clients a few years ago.  She is doing a fabric based showing this month and asked if I would like to contribute the quilt.  The timing is perfect.  The clients would be thrilled to know their work is up.  It should be noted the quilt has no identifying names beyond the name of the program, the year and the theme, Pathways to Wellness.  This showing, I hope, will help a few more people develop empathy and understanding for people suffering with mental illness.

The theme from MHA this year is about living with mental illness.  Clients often talked about  their symptoms, and of course they often show their symptoms.  These are people living with schizophrenia and bipolar, along with depression and anxiety.  Most of these people have had tremendous traumas and hardships in their life.  Some have additional diagnoses of borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.  Most of them have never worked, or worked in transient labor jobs.  Many live in group homes and live on $600 or $700 a month. Some live with families, some have families who provide additional support, and some have been cut off from their families.  Many have not enjoyed what we take for granted, marriage, family, career, vehicle, homes, trips, and so forth. Some became ill in the middle of a promising future in college, or had a professional career cut short.  Many became sick in high school and never had a chance.  Sometimes we have had clients who have had careers, family, et al, because mental illness does not discriminate. They are well aware of the stigma, and the number one feeling, in my own casual surveys, is that they frequently “feel alone and apart”. They do not take anything for granted.

This year I decided that instead of just focusing on their illness, we would focus on something, or an idea, they can feel good about.  In a brief solitary brain storm session I came up with positive words that start with a P.  Nothing profound here. (Wow another P word!)  The letter P is related to the name of our program – Partial Hospitalization Program. I had the clients brainstorm words.  Our program is divided into two tracked groups.  I started with the lower functioning group and that’s all that was needed.  We had a blast over a couple of days coming up with as many positive P words as we could, and the other group borrowed the words. I encouraged clients to choose their own word, but if two clients wanted the same word, that was fine.

The art idea was for the clients to draw and cut out their word and then paste on black poster paper,  in whatever creative configuration that seemed pleasing. (I had to buy the paper, which cost $5.00 from Michael’s, yea!, $5.00 was the grand total for the money spent). Then they needed to come up with an art idea connected to their word, using colored paper cut outs.  I also did some clip art they could color once they settled on as idea, for those who had problems with drawing and cutting. I figured the colored paper on black would look striking and it does.

Sometimes the clients unusual thinking bleeds through a bit, but so what? It is their expression!

The clients ended up using these words:

Promise

Possibility

Paradise

Promote

Purpose

Praise

Prayer

Peace

Prosperity

Positive

Passion

Pad (as in personal space)

Please

Precious

Powerful

Potential

..and a few more that I can’t recall.

Promise was the first word suggested.  Can we find a way to end the stigma, and work on keep our promise to these individuals.  As we talked about this in group, promise has two meanings.  One is based on a handshake, to keep your word. (In fact this client used this visual).  The other is about a better tomorrow, the promise of a brighter future.  We can’t have one without the other.

Part Two: Next time I want to share some thoughts on mental health and illness, stigma, misconceptions, and my peeves about it is treated by the media, particularly toward those who are notable, famous, celebrities with mental illness. But also those who are forgotten and discarded.

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