Since 2002, Circle of Friends has been providing art, drama, music, photography and writing classes to adults who have severe mental illness. The nonprofi t has recruited more than 100 interns from area colleges in the last decade to instruct one or more of their 17 classes throughout North and Central Seattle.
Some instructors, like John Morris, are clients who also facilitate classes. At present, nearly 170 clients attend weekly sessions, learning digital photography, portrait drawing, theatrical improvisation, creative writing or singing.
“We provide a service because we recognize arts are empowering, creative and fun, and it makes people’s lives better,” Morris said. “Everyone is an artist; we have to learn that in ourselves.”
Morris, who designs the website for Circle of Friends and also serves as a board member, is working toward becoming a professional guitarist and is also involved with multimedia graphic design. He works part-time as a custodian at the University Christian Church, where the Circle of Friends office is located.
Morris said that Circle of Friends is a client-run organization where many of its board members also deal with mental illness. Morris, 43, said he has been dealing with his own self-stigma, as well as the stigma from others, because of his schizophrenia, which was diagnosed when he was 18.
“Those that have a biological disorder shouldn’t be blamed for it. It’s like blaming someone for having cancer,” he said.
“We want to change the dialogue from mental illness to ‘mental wellness,’” added founder Carolyn Hale.
Both Morris and Hale said that there is a growing interest and support for Circle of Friends. Still, the stigma around mental illness leaves much work to be done.
According to the Circle of Friends website, approximately one in five adults have diagnosable mental illness, with less than 33 percent of those adults receiving professional treatment.
Hale said she has found that many ethnic groups hold a great stigma against mental illness and that some do not even have a word for “mental illness” in their vocabulary. Because of this, people of those ethnic groups cannot even get help or acknowledgement of their needs.
For Morris, even the interactions between health-care provider and mental health patient can hold prejudice, with the client being made to feel inferior to the provider.
Hale emphasized that the sessions with Circle of Friends is not therapy, but it is therapeutic for some because the activities get them involved with others in their community.
“They come in with the issues, and we respond,” she said.
For Hale, her need for advocacy toward mental illness started because of her son, who had been diagnosed with a mental illness. She first became involved with the National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI) serving as a family-to-family trainer. Her early involvement also found her helping organize the Stride for Stability fund-raising walk.
This accomplished, Hale began to think about how art classes might be offered at the various sites where the severely mentally ill were living. She was encouraged by other members to consider starting her own nonprofit organization offering arts-and-crafts activities, and thus, Circle of Friends began.
The official first art party was launched during Christmas, when the leaders of the Keystone assisted-living facility in Wallingford recognized that many of the residents wanted to give Christmas gifts but had no money to buy them. Several artists stepped forward to help residents create greeting cards and painted T-shirts and neck scarves as presents.
The Raging Grannies, of which Hale is a member, brought its music and singing to the party, and the event was pegged a success.
Since then, classes have burgeoned at Cascade Hall in the Northgate area, Emerald House in the Central Area and
Wallingford House and the Keystone living facility in Wallingford.
Hale said that there is little funding in the state for actual classroom or community space in the residences, let alone classes. At Emerald House, art classes are held in a well-lit dining room, where residents gather for weekly house meetings, as well as share their meals. Participants start a casual afternoon talking with art instructors and going through art books by such great names as Georgia O’Keeffe and Rembrandt.
For Josie Boyden, one of two art instructors at Emerald House, the opportunity to teach art has brought her awareness to what it takes to be an excellent instructor.
“Teachers need to be curious, flexible and compassionate when doing this. Just making art can be therapeutic if it takes one’s mind off troubles,” she said.
Hale said that no formal training is required for interns to teach the classes, but they are encouraged to simply be a friend, learning the name of the residents.
She said many of the interns are involved in psychology or social work de
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