Tony S. has a thick shock of black hair, intense eyes and a gravelly voice that's often punctuated by laughter. He's passionate about art, incense and the history of the American West.
He's also recovering from a severe mental illness. But you wouldn't know it unless he told you.
"I went through some severe crises several years ago and went into a severe depression," he says.
His eyes grow momentarily dark.
"My caseworker, Megan, at QC/M was invaluable in getting me out and getting my mind off things," he says.
Queen City/Mitchell Mental Health Services (QC/M) is an amalgamation of agencies serving adults with severe mental illness. Founded in 1989 by Mary Campbell, QC/M serves more than 1,200 adults in Cincinnati every year. Its mission is to promote and support the integration of mentally ill adults in the community.
QC/M offers case management, psychosocial programs, job counseling and placement and the Just for Us social club.
In November 2000 Tony S. started going to QC/M, where he found a group of peers and support in his recovery.
'Art is what pulled me out'
Over the summer the social club began work on an art therapy project. Local artist Pete Jaquish collaborated with 25 clients to create a mural called Crossing the Bridge.
Funding for the project came from the Fine Arts Fund and Fifth/Third Bank. Architect Denny Dellinger loaned the Metalblast building in Over-the-Rhine.
"Pete asked, 'What do you want people to know about mental illness?' " says Kathy Ivie, QC/M development and communication director.
The answer to that question resulted in the creation of an 8-foot tall, three-panel mural depicting the journey from diagnosis of mental illness to recovery. The panels were on display at the Cincinnati Museum Center.
"Our goal is to help our clients and make it a meaningful experience for them, while at the same time open the minds and eyes of people in the community," Ivie says.
The mural project, which began Aug. 9, 2002, took three months to complete. QC/M drove the clients to Metalblast every Friday, where they planned, painted and socialized for four hours. For many of those involved, it was a chance to get out and take their minds off their troubles.
"Everyone had a hidden talent," says Betty Craig, director of Just for Us. "Everyone found something in this. People who didn't speak were suddenly sociable. They were integrated and started conversing. For those who had trouble staying focused and sitting still, suddenly they were quiet, suddenly they were focused. This project brought people out of themselves for just a little while."
Craig, a client as well as a staff member at Just for Us, sings the praises of art therapy.
"Art is what pulled me out of my shell," she says. "When I was put into a day treatment program, I didn't respond at all until I was introduced to art therapy. I never thought I had any talent. Suddenly things were coming out of me that I didn't even know I had."
Tony S. echoes her enthusiasm.
"Some of these clients lead very, very bleak lives," he says. "It was a nice excursion for them."
But he's quick to point out that art can touch everyone, whether or not they have a mental illness.
"Art is excellent therapy for people who don't need mental facilities," he says. "It's food for the soul."
The 'dirty little secret'
The panels themselves are a testament to what can happen when people open up and collaborate on a common goal. The first panel represents "the gloom and doom and the darkness upon diagnosis, or even before diagnosis," Craig explains.
Jaquish and the clients stuck to dark colors and foreboding imagery to depict the sense of imprisonment that people with mental illness often feel.
The central focus of the middle panel is a long bridge that spans a chasm. The color spectrum in this panel creeps from dark to light, when the inklings of recovery become visible.
The final panel is the clients' vision of recovery, replete with sunshine, flowers and an angelic figure.
Campbell and Ivie are pleased with the outcome of the mural project both artistically and therapeutically.
"We'd like to integrate a full-blown arts therapy program into what we do," Ivie says. "We're exploring funding opportunities and discussing more projects. Pete Jaquish has expressed an interest in continuing to do projects like this."
QC/M hopes to create note cards with the mural artwork and sell them to raise money for future arts therapy projects.
"Our goal," Campbell says, "is to make a positive statement about mental illness, letting the world know that while there's no cure, there is hope for a normal life with the appropriate medical treatment and access to community health services."
Mental illness strikes one of every five families, according to Ivie.
"It's kind of like a dirty little secret that no one likes to talk about," she says. "But you know if you're in a group of five, chances are that one of them has been touched by it."
Mental illness shouldn't carry a stigma, because it's closer than many realize, according to Tony S.
"Even people who are well-adjusted are only a crisis away from depression," he says. "The line between well-adjusted and emotionally ill is thinner and more unexpected than people think." ©