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Painted Brain | Progress In Mental Health
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • February 20, 2015

Progress in Mental Health

As I rocket home to LA in a backward-facing seat on the Metrolink, I consider the parallels between the progress of The Painted Brain versus that of a friend coming up on his first month of sobriety. The massive achievement of simple maintenance can feel enormously fulfilling, entirely fleeting, or even like its very opposite: abject failure. The fact that, at the moment, everything is going well and there are no immediate dangers does not necessarily bring a sense of security. It can instead provoke a real sense of anxiety.

Damn, I wish I had paid more attention in mindfulness class. Things are going so well at The Painted Brain that it seems ludicrous to sweat each minor hiccup that comes with the increased work load, contact, attention and growth. Since Naomi always tells me that I dwell on my challenges, I wrote this piece to celebrate our recent success.

We are about to hire our first staff members, people who will focus explicitly on running our space. Reaching our recent fundraising goal, a phenomenal achievement and a success by any standard, has made this possible. We’re hiring two staff people from within The Painted Brain community to be on site three days per week in order to assist and acclimate new arrivals, run activities, stay in touch with our members while recruiting more, develop our first peer leader summit for Southern California, and guide the continued growth of our groundbreaking endeavor.

This event is a just preview of what’s to come: the move toward having our own place.

I feel very proud of the program that we’ve cobbled together at BACUP (1730 W. Olympic, #500, LA 90015). What we have now is a collection of group activities run by social work interns and participants as well as many volunteers, and we have a beautiful space. We host interesting and challenging activities several days each week, such as our always-raucous and thrilling editorial meeting, and the ofttimes deep yet always lovely community meeting every Monday. We’ve had training opportunities such as the Corbis photojournalism program, published ten issues of Painted Brain magazine, and participated in five large gallery shows. We’ve built friendships, helped isolated people to connect, and inspired genius artistic collaboration, and all without any kind of “program.”

Well, those days are behind us.

We now have the capacity, as a peer-run agency, to personally connect with every person that comes through our doors in order to start them off on the right foot. Like the fabled Gesundheit Institute of Patch Adams’ dreams, we can find a place for that special skill or hidden purpose inside every one of us.

The attention and interest of a growing number of important decision makers is focused on us now, and our growth, our commitment, and our persistence are being noticed. And why not?

Mental health services are going, if I may be so bold, in the wrong direction. We have known for centuries that the best outcomes result from changing the environment in which people live and function. For example, the beautifully-named “Moral Treatment” that was popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (particularly among the well-heeled), saw people with mental illness brought to live in the country and given tasks that put them in touch with both the earth and with one another, through shared labor and a common purpose. It was a treatment of manners.

They were on the right track, but unfortunately, it did not last, as urbanization led to mass incarceration in state-run asylums. Things took a more promising turn in the 1960s. Here in the western states, an effort was made to end institutionalization and build a community-based mental health system. This was a time when the emphasis was on “community” and not “mental health,” but alas, those days are behind us. The focus has returned to “mental health” which increasingly means specific, individualized, time-limited interventions for specific symptoms and behaviors. There is a strong emphasis placed on a view of mental illness as a set of discreet symptoms and behaviors that each have a corresponding targeted intervention. Not only is this not about community, it’s not even about whole persons, when you think about it.

We at painted Brain are engaged in something totally different, and people are beginning to listen.
I need to remember all of this, as my anxiety alarm is tripped once again by the tiny roots underfoot that crop up to complicate our forward path.

So here I am, lost in thought, headed back to LA, backward.

Dave Leon is the founder/director of The Painted Brain. He writes a weekly editorial column for Painted Brain News.

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