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Painted Brain | Mental Health Activism
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • April 1, 2015

Mental Health Activism

On a recent trip to my hometown of St. Louis, I visited an enormously uplifting organization, the Independence Center, where I met an inspiring man named Dennis Jones. For those of us at Painted Brain, the Independence Center is the clubhouse of our dreams: multiple floors of beautiful, roomy and comfortable space housing every imaginable social service and activity. Every service, that is, except therapy, psychiatry, or speaking more generally, “treatment” of any kind. At the Center, they promote the judicious use of these services all of which are available within walking distance. The Center does provide yoga and dance in a spacious blond-wood studio, dozens of jobs and job-readiness programs, work out rooms, meeting spaces, and even their very-own television studio. Harvey, interviewed elsewhere here in Painted Brain News by Jesus Matias, is one of the techs who helps to produce the Independence Center News several times a day. Each live report consists of two members of the Center reading a list of current activities and updates on-camera which is carried live on large video screens located throughout the building. The running joke during my tour of the Center was that it’s St. Louis and not Los Angeles that hosts such an incredible agency.

Dennis, an amiable man in his early sixties who, according to him, has only found peace and a place in the world fairly recently, had a vision and pursued it, and he wanted to talk to me about how to expand the impact of his work. Dennis believes in the raw power of shared artistic experience and has devoted himself to divorcing the act of creation from the judgment inherent in such questions as, “What is art?” He found this through personal experience and quickly devoted himself to bringing his concept to others. Dennis runs a weekly expressive arts group at the inpatient psychiatric center at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis through his organization, Ah! Moments Imagination Studios. The studio focuses directly on tapping into the inherent creativity of self-proclaimed “non-artists.” Shortly after talking with him, the word activism, already found in Painted Brain’s mission statement, kept coming to mind. Immediately, I sent a text to Billy, our editor back in Los Angeles. I was thinking, “An activist community,” or, “a community of activists,” or maybe even “a community of mental health activists.”


It is safe to say now, two weeks later, that everyone at the Painted Brain likes the phrase mental health activists, and feels that it describes us and our intentions very well. So what is mental health activism? The question itself sharpens our mission. One of the first things that comes to my mind is that the practice of mental health activism must represent sane, intentional behavior. This isn’t as boring as it sounds. Our upcoming art show, Inside Voices, scheduled for May 9th at Monkspace gallery, is a planned event where people are expected to let loose, have fun, and experience some cool and unique art. The inherent zaniness of a Painted Brain public event has its purpose. The celebration of each other, as we are, is an act of mental health activism. The fact that mental illness is an acknowledged component of our celebration is part of the subtle yet radical nature of the Painted Brain. (Our newspaper, on the other hand, is radical without resorting to subtlety).

Mental health activism, as I see it, has to seek and push for the ideal balance of freedom from and freedom to. This concept, put forth by John Stuart Mill in the mid-nineteenth century, suggests that people should have the right and freedom to do whatever they choose up until the point at which it impinges upon someone else’s liberty. This is an attitude I think we can all adopt toward anyone that believes or experiences the world in a manner which is foreign or incomprehensible to us.

When Painted Brain promotes a better, more realistic image of life with mental illness, we actively advocate for mind freedom, the freedom to act differently and strangely, even somewhat off-putting to others. The freedom not to go along, and not to get along, so to speak. People that seem different or act differently than the majority will always stick out in society. The concept of stigma reduction is wrong-headed in this sense, as it seeks to promote acceptance of the idea of mental illness, but not promote acceptance of non-typical behavior.
Maybe this is why we’re artists? (to be continued)

Dave Leon is a licensed clinical therapist and founder/director of the Painted Brain. He writes a weekly column for Painted Brain News.

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