Sound Mental Health put on “Eliminating Mental Health Stigma through the Arts” on Oct. 30, an evening where three artists who have dealt with mental illness featured their work with the aim of reducing the stigma of mental illness.
“If they get the diagnosis and get the right help, they can live a full life,” said Gayle Johnson, chief development and communications officer at Sound Mental Health. “That’s why it’s so critical we have to eliminate the stigma so people will feel they can go talk to their employer or family member or friend, say, ‘Hey, I’m not feeling that great. I think I need some help.’”
Seattle-based actor/writer Sarah Harris performed her one-woman routine, “Call Me Crazy,” about her life and recovery from mental illness.
The mother-daughter pair of Cinda and Linea Johnson, authors of the recently published memoir, “Perfect Chaos: A Daughter’s Journey to Survive Bipolar Disorder and A Mother’s Struggle to Save Her,’ read from their book.
“When asking why use the arts to eliminate stigma, I think people who have mental illnesses are very creative and are able to touch people in ways that are different if you were to read,” Cinda Johnson said. “The arts normalizes and connects. It has the audience feel, ‘I get that.’”
Gayle Johnson said it’s advantageous to use many art forms to eliminate stigma, since different people better connect with different venues.
“We’re at a point where stigma impacts so many things: legislation, health-care insurance, people not being able to get a roof over their head,” she said, also noting that the media often play a role in perpetuating stigma by highlighting negative stereotypes.
The evening’s goal was to humanize mental illness.
“I’m hoping the show will lessen stigma by people recognizing I might not be that much different from them,” Harris said. “You meet me, look at me — you wouldn’t think I have a mental illness. It’s important, mainly because our perception of people who are mentally ill is negative.
“You wouldn’t look at someone who has cancer and say they are faking their illness or they’re too difficult to deal with,” Harris added. “You have more compassion.”
Linea Johnson, 26, feels informing people about illness via her own story is powerful.
“It allows people to see the way it’s affected you,” she said.
It has been speculated that many of the greatest artists of all time had mental illness, including as Van Gogh, Beethoven and Virginia Wolff.
“There’s research that shows a relationship between creativity and mental illness,” Cinda Johnson said. “But it’s important to remember that everyone is different.”
While people who have mental illness are often creative, those individuals probably don’t need their mental illness to be artistic, Linea Johnson noted.
“People tend to be more creative when they’re manic, but it’s a false sense that to do art you need to be manic or unstable,” she said. “I feel I create much better art when I’m stable because I’m allowed to think about it and edit it, instead of writing super-fast and not crafting it the way I want.”
Steve McLean, director of communications at Sound Mental Health, said people who have mental illness frequently enjoy art and art therapy, which can benefit that individual and the greater community.
“There are studies showing art validates what people are going through and allows them to express themselves,” McLean said. “It gives them a sense of self-worth, that they can achieve something on the creative end.”
Likewise, Michael Buchert, boundary spanner and creative arts therapist at Sound Mental Health, said art is also useful for allowing people to fundamentally communicate.
“Every single human being is sitting on a gold mine of creative expression, and everyone needs different tools,” Buchert said.
Both Harris and Linea Johnson haven’t directly experienced mental-illness stigma themselves, but they say they are irritated when they hear others making fun of people with mental illness.
“I have been very lucky and have never had stigma against me, but [I] have seen instances where people are stigmatized without knowing I have bipolar,” Linea Johnson said. “They talk about a friend who has bipolar and has done all these terrible things. They’ll use words like ‘crazy’ in a very negative way.”
“Often, there’s a lot of blame,” Cinda Johnson said, regarding parents who have children with mental illness. “Parents of children and teens and young adults with mental illness often feel they are to blame — that they weren’t strict enough or they were too strict, or they didn’t spend enough time with them, or they spent too much time.”
For Harris, the show gives her a new identity as a mental-health advocate.
“When I talked to Gayle [at Sound Mental Health] about my show, and she invited me to this event, without a doubt or hesitation I said yes, because it’s important what Sound Mental Health does,” she said.
“That said, I was never looking to become a mental-health advocate; the topic chose me. To be honest, it wasn’t ‘joy, joy’ that I’m sharing my story. It was frightening, but I realized it’s a story I needed to tell,” she continued.
According to McLean, while a majority of people think those with mental illness are dangerous, it’s not true. Far more people with mental illness are victims of violence, rather than perpetuators of it, he said; these widespread misconceptions only discriminate against the millions of Americans who have mental illness.
“I have situational depression and was trying to get long-term care one time but was denied because I was taking an antidepressant,” Gail Johnson said. “This is a civil-rights issue because it discriminates against so many people.”
Next year, Sound Mental Health, based on Capitol Hill, will have a full-fledged “eliminating-stigma” campaign, which will include more artistic performances, as well as input from the community.
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