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Finding hope and recovery through art

Late last month, in a small community room in Carrboro, members of an arts and peer support group gathered around tables overflowing with sleeves of rainbow markers, tubes of acrylic paint, and boxes of colored pencils. Though not an artist studio, the space at the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health has served as a supportive place for individuals with mental illness to contribute their talents and to share their successes, struggles and hopes.

Laurie Selz Campbell, a clinical assistant professor at UNC’s School of Social Work, and Hillary Rubesin, an expressive arts therapist and licensed professional counselor with the N.C. Art Therapy Institute, developed and piloted the support group as an extension of two ongoing successful programs: a daily inpatient occupational arts group in the N.C. Neurosciences Hospital and “Brushes with Life,” an art gallery on the third floor of the hospital that features the artwork of current and former patients.

Both programs serve a vital need. But Selz Campbell and Rubesin quickly realized that an arts and peer support group within the community would provide an additional safe environment for individuals with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder to help one another and to share their passion for the creative arts.

“People who experience mental illness often feel alone and without purpose or value,” Selz Campbell said. “These experiences can be just as painful and disabling as the psychiatric symptoms themselves. Peer support addresses both of those things. It brings people together. It’s the idea that peers have wisdom and insight to share with one another, which is just as important as the help that they receive from professionals. And for this group, these are all people for whom their identity as an artist is important to them. It’s something they value about themselves and that brings them joy. So, we saw the art as a way of getting the conversation started and as a way to help these individuals build community among themselves.”

Staff members at the Center for Excellence were equally supportive of the recovery-oriented initiative, which fit well with its other resources, including three outpatient mental health treatment programs and projects focused on the creation of guidelines for best clinical practice. The center also supports community partnerships to develop policy and training.

With cooperation from the center and small grants from the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation and Strowd Roses Inc., Selz Campbell and Rubesin piloted the support group for four weeks in June. Additional funding is being pursued, with the hope of reviving the group later this summer or by early fall.

The June meetings were open to individuals 18 years and older. During the sessions, group members used painting, drawing, collage and poetry to reflect on the daily realities of living with mental illness and to share moments of progress and inspiration.

“I’m writing less notes and Post-its to myself, which is really incredible because I would make lists and lists, and lists about lists, which is obsessive, and I’m not doing that anymore,” said Mollyann Wingerter, while sketching a self-portrait on a piece of scrapbook paper. “I just got sick and tired of making lists.”

Seeing group members use their art to learn more about themselves or to work through issues they might be struggling with, is rewarding, Rubesin said.

“Whether it’s with a poem or a painting or a song, the arts let us take whatever’s going on inside, and put it outside of us,” Rubesin said. “When those thoughts or emotions are separate from us, we are able to work with them, play with them, re-imagine them, and then reintegrate them if and when we feel ready. I think, for people living with mental illness, there can be so much going on inside their heads that it’s hard to organize their ideas and make sense of them. So to be able to put those thoughts outside—for example, on a canvas, or in an expressive movement—can be a really powerful experience.”

By coming together each week, group members were also reminded that they are not alone in their journey with mental illness, Selz Campbell said. The sessions also gave participants a chance to examine ways in which all individuals are similar and different, she added.

To encourage such exploration, members were asked during each meeting to create a piece of art based on a general theme or artistic exercise. For example, in one group, Selz Campbell asked members to create a piece that answered the following half statements: I am…, I wonder…, I fear…, I know…, I wish…, I believe…, and I see…. Each individual artwork was then collected to create a collage to showcase the strengths and power of the group.

Using a sponge brush, Claudia Moon dabbed deep blue paint around magazine cutouts of water scenes glued to a piece of paper. A self-described “beach bum,” Moon used her love of the water as a partial theme for addressing the group exercise.

“I wonder where that wave came from.” Moon stated, while discussing her creation. “I know a lot about the ocean. I see the water when I close my eyes.”

Other members created pieces revealing wishes for wealth, a desire for a good husband, and the ability to see wonder in life’s little things. As they admired their work, Selz Campbell pointed out a common theme.

“Even though each and every one of us has been through some kind of loss and storms, in some ways, everybody (artistically expressed their) hope or wishes—those things haven’t been extinguished,” she said. “To me, that’s what really jumps out, which is beautiful and a really important thing.”

Group members agreed.

“Everybody is looking for hope, I think, through all this,” Wingerter added.