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Painted Brain | How To Be A Radical Without Getting Hurt In The Process
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • November 6, 2014

How to Be a Radical Without Getting Hurt in the Process

Painted Brain has grown far beyond my wildest dreams.

Last year, we ran nearly twenty art groups per week all over our mental health system. This was my vision when we were first working together back at Didi Hirsch in 2004. I thought, Art groups are fun, easy, sought after, and the perfect addition to all of the standard treatment options available through our public mental health system, so let’s have lot’s of them!

We showed that art groups can have a demonstrable impact on the participants in a single sitting. Why it should be necessary to prove that participation in an art group has a positive impact when the results are so self-evident has been a constant bugbear of mine.  However, it is something I’ve been forced to come to terms with. I plan to discuss this conflict further here in this writing project, but for today, let’s just talk about the big picture.

In the world of mental health, we face some huge problems. Only a third of the adults in L.A. County living with serious mental illness are accessing any form of treatment. Almost no one living with a mental illness feels comfortable identifying him or herself as such. Many people living with mental illness deny it, or simply don’t believe it to be true. Mental illness frightens people, it isolates them and, considering the way society currently responds to mental illness, it makes perfect sense that no one wants to be too public about it.

This needs to change. The people that I know, myself included, agree that what society considers mental illness, we see as a force of nature, a superpower that one must grow into, adapt to, and understand. Mental illness is simply an aberration from the norm. Our brains function differently than the average brain: how we access or can’t control our emotions, how we access or can’t control our imaginations, and how we access or can’t control our energy, even our own thought processes. Our gifts don’t fit well into today’s society. Not only do we need to remove the shame and stigma of mental illness, but we must make it something to be proud of. It’s a daunting and unwanted task, perhaps even an impossible one.

There is nothing wrong with any of us. We lead complicated lives, think complicated thoughts, and pursue complicated relationships, just like everyone else. We do things we’re not proud of, and other things for which we deserve to feel proud, just like everyone else. Our brains simply do things in a non-average way.

I have a mental illness. It’s called depression. It used to be debilitating, in the sense that I felt crushed beneath the weight of the world and all of its ills. I felt hopeless as a kid because of (I’m not exaggerating and I know how weird this might sound to you) a combination of loneliness and my awareness of bad policy. I would think to myself, The economy is fixed, poor people will remain poor, and huge numbers of people in the world live in utter poverty and will likely continue to do so, no matter what I can personally do about it, so why bother even living or pushing myself?

I felt this way at the age of eleven!  My hopelessness as a child, my depression, was already both personal and political.

I am not lonely anymore, and have found a lot of love in my life. I’m still angry about policy, and I’m constantly reminded of the many ills prevalent in our society.  I’ve been driven by anger to take on a life that few peers in my profession would consider. My goal is to explore questions such as these: Can our vulnerabilities make us strong and bring us together?  Can I pursue this without getting hurt in the process?

I have many opinions that I want to share with all of you. I earn a third of the income I brought home a couple years ago, working at my cushy job as a therapist at a major local university, but I am happier and healthier now than I’ve ever been in my life.

Depression is a major source of my strength, and I hope that my story will have an impact.

Dave Leon LCSW is PB’s founder/director.  He writes a weekly editorial column called Dave’s Brain for Painted Brain News

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