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Painted Brain | Building A Mental Health Community In A War Zone
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • November 4, 2014

Building a Mental Health Community in a War Zone

Sometimes when I think of the Painted Brain’ mission, I begin thinking about NGO’s and refugee camps. Let’s not overstate this or suggest that the suffering of people in war-torn countries actually compares to life here in Los Angeles, but there is a grain of truth in this.

The onset of mental illness is a traumatic experience. When you’re nineteen years-old and still trying to figure out who the hell you are (which is the natural trauma of all late-teens), having a psychotic break makes you doubt yourself, and question all the hard earned knowledge that you were just about to put into action as an adult. Suddenly, you can’t trust your own brain to work in a predictable manner.

Let me paint you a picture. Imagine two thousand sixteen-to-twenty-five years-olds experiencing the onset of psychosis simultaneously in a large city like LA. Add to this a couple of thousand people in the throes of their first manic episode, and another ten thousand so severely depressed that they can’t function. Top this off with several thousand homeless who fight for survival on the streets of Hollywood and Venice every day.

We are trying to build a community of outcasts and refugees.

How are people with mental illness treated in our society? Well, here in LA, most often, we throw them in jail. Half of the inmate population of Twin Towers exhibit symptoms of mental illness. People with mental illness have been beaten, and a few have even been killed, in public places. It they are lucky, people experiencing psychotic or manic symptoms are detained and brought to a psychiatric hospital or mental health urgent care. In many cases, this means being handled roughly, escorted to a chaotic, overcrowded psychiatric unit, and medicated, sometimes by force, in order to “stabilize” them.

Having said this, I want to point out that I am not always against forcible hospitalization (in theory), though there are myriad ways such a terrifying experience can be made better, less frightening, and more humane. I have personally made the call to hospitalize people, and I know that, in the midst of a manic or psychotic episode, people can lose control of themselves and benefit from some external controls. But there need to be gradations, people! The system is underfunded, miniscule relative to the needs and demands of a city of ten million.

Let’s talk about outpatient services. Mental health agencies are swamped, and what they can offer people is tightly regulated by funding streams. Services are designed to offer help to an individual via a single agency. Generally, there is no mechanism for client A at agency X to meet client B at agency X, much less meet client C at agency Y. Divide and conquer. This is not intentional, it’s just a side effect of our system. Sixty percent of all Los Angeles residents with serious mental illness access and receive no mental health support at all, and those that do have few ways to meet one another.

Finally, let’s talk about stigma. People exhibiting the symptoms of mental illness are feared, shunned and avoided. We are surrounded by highly-sensationalized stories and images in the media of dangerously insane young men inflicting violence and terror upon innocent people, when nothing could be further from the truth. This very loud and tiny percentage of people with mental illness ends up representing the entire population because they draw so much attention. Therefore, when you experience these symptoms, you will likely deny that you have them (even to yourself) or hide them from everyone else. You certainly wouldn’t want to associate with other people with mental illness. After all, why would you want to hang out with a bunch of psycho-killers and babbling homeless people?

We’re trying to build a community of people who are recovering from the trauma and confusion of mental illness, people separated from one another both by a flawed system, mutual mistrust, denial, and internalized stigma. We are doing this in the midst of a huge and chaotic city where acting strangely in public can get you arrested, so please, wish us luck.
No, wait. We’re already succeeding.

Dave Leon is the founder and director of The Painted Brain.

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