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Sometimes being a mental health activist means adjusting to the feeling of inaction. After all, creating a movement and changing people’s minds about mental illness can be an excruciatingly slow process, especially when much of what you are trying to change exists within long-established institutions. Many long-standing mental health programs separate consumers from one another, both within and across different agencies, and ubiquitous negative representations of people with mental illness in the media exacerbate the situation. Since many people diagnosed with mental illness neither accept or believe that they are ill, they have no desire to meet one another, even when mental health agencies make it easy to do so. Additionally, many service providers target specific areas of a patient’s life (work, home, infractions of civil and criminal law, etc.,) and intervene on an as-needed basis in a strictly-limited way.
Many who work in institutions believe in and support the need for community development, however, and want to help their clients find ways to interact and help one another.
Most of the mental healthcare workers that I know feel extremely discouraged by the difference between what they are paid to do and what they wish they could do. Crushed beneath the wheels of a broken system, they do their best to help clients navigate, interact, and flourish.
Building a community is messy, nonlinear, and hard-to-measure, and perhaps, shouldn’t be measured at all. The very nature of an organic process is that it does whatever it’s going to do. Developing a balanced blend of activities which connect members of a community to one another (as well as potential members) is one of slow accrual and incremental titration requiring a long-term commitment to the process itself.
Perhaps I grumble about attempts to measure effectiveness and outcome because these things imply the completion of an ongoing process, one that should never be thought of as complete.
Last week I attended a conference about the needs of homeless youth in LA. Many of LA’s teens and young adults have been through the foster care system, mental health institutions, and jails. They live on the streets, without jobs, education, or the means to survive. Always disenfranchised, they are sometimes drug-addicted, while others have been driven outside the mainstream by differences in sexuality and gender. Many of them hail from all over the United States. The overarching need identified by the conference, across all of these groups, was the need for a sense of permanence, the need to feel a part of something that won’t abandon or abuse them. This is hardly a radical idea, but all of the systems now in place serve (or struggle to serve) only one component of that need. This increases the sense of fragmentation and feelings of disenfranchisement.
Twenty years ago, I had an epiphany at my mother’s second wedding. My wish for her and her new husband was that they should have an unhurried life together. Maybe it’s because I want to enjoy the experience of everyday life that I’m so intent on limiting and reducing anxiety. I get anxious, and sometimes, it can feel overwhelming.
Actually, there’s nothing to worry about. We’re growing, we’re gaining momentum, and I feel that we’re only at the beginning of what it is that we’re destined to become. This feels thrilling, even at our nine-year anniversary, April 20th, 2015.
Painted Brain is working outside the system, creating a new way of looking at and doing social work, fomenting new ideas and formulating a vision of mental illness that’s all about opportunities to connect and contribute. The most radical thing we do at the Painted Brain is forge friendships. Friendships are nonlinear, tempestuous beasts that disregard labels and embarrass arbitrary lines of demarcation.
Anxiety won’t bring people together, that takes a sense of community, shared catharsis, and artistic expression.
Dave Leon is a licensed clinical therapist and founder/director of the Painted Brain. He writes a column for Painted Brain News.