News: Out of the Darkness

Local arts program helps those with mental illness

Jan 8, 2003 at 2:06 pm

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," Tony explains, his eyes growing momentarily dark. "My caseworker, Megan, at QC/M was invaluable in getting me out and getting my mind off things."

Queen City/Mitchell Mental Health Services (QC/M) is an amalgamation of case management agencies designed to serve 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 successful integration of adults with mental illness into the community." The agency accomplishes its mission through a variety of programs that include case management, psychosocial programs, career services, job counseling and placement and the Just for Us social club.

Tony started coming to QC/M in November 2000 and has found a group of peers in addition to the support he received in getting his life back together.

Over the summer, the social club began work on an art therapy effort entitled "Crossing the Bridge." Linda Richey, QC/M clinical director, contacted local artist Pete Jaquish to collaborate with 25 "consumers" (clients) on a mural project that was funded by the Fine Arts Fund and Fifth/Third Bank. Denny Dellinger, architect and owner of the Metalblast building in Over-the-Rhine, loaned Metalblast to the project, and an intensive collaboration began.

"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 have been on display at the Cincinnati Museum Center.

"Our goal is to help our clients and make it a meaningful experience for them," Ivie says, "while at the same time open the minds and eyes of people in the community."

According to Ivie, mental illness strikes one out of every five families.

"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."

The project, which began Aug. 9, took three months to complete. QC/M transported the consumers 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," explains 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 consumer 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 echoes Craig's 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 touches 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 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 consumers 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 consumers' vision of recovery, replete with sunshine, flowers and an angelic figure.

Both Campbell and Ivie are pleased with the outcome of the mural project, on artistic as well as therapeutic levels.

"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."

At the very least, QC/M hopes to create notecards 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."

For his part, Tony believes that mental illness shouldn't carry its stigma much longer.

"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." ©