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Archive for the ‘Interview’ Category

I had the privilege of speaking with Michelle Clausius, who works with homeless youth at Covenant House, a non-profit organization that provides security, comfort, and crisis intervention for homeless youth. Covenant House encourages their youth to express themselves through art.

5 Questions for Covenant House

SOS: What is your specific position at Covenant House?

M.C.: Associate Director, Development and Communications

SOS: Do you think homeless youth are more at risk for mental illness that the average young adult? Why or why not?

M.C.: Yes, homeless young people have several factors that increase their risk of mental illness. They are:

– Childhood physical and/or sexual abuse and neglect

– Foster care placement (over half our youth have been in foster care)

– Failure to attach (many of our youth never had meaningful and loving attachments when they were children)

– They are homeless [and thus] more at risk for re-victimization while on the streets

SOS: Do you think that art helps the youth in your program express themselves?

M.C.: Yes, art whether it be photography, illustrations, or writing gives the youth a voice but with the comfort of not always having to express themselves vocally – their art represents them in a way that they may either not be able or want to articulate themselves.

SOS: Without giving away any names or identities, can you think of any specific young adult who found art to be exceptionally therapeutic? What was his/her experience with art?

M.C.: It was therapeutic for the young woman who created the comic that is on our blog.  The therapeutic value works like this:  writing about their mental illness normalizes it in a way, therefore lessening the stigma or shame they may feel about their mental illness.

SOS: And finally, what is the #1 reason that you do what you do?

M.C.: I love telling the stories of our young people – the more people learn about our youth and their struggles, the more likely they are to support our work.

Michelle, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with SOS about the important work that Covenant House does, and the role that art plays in helping homeless youth express themselves!

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Marilyn Geary is a personal historian and writer. In her documentary film, Marin Mind/Scapes : Stories of Art, Nature, and Wellness, professional and amateur artists speak of their art, their creative process, and how Marin County’s natural beauty has inspired their work and influenced their lives. SOS had the good fortune to do an interview with Marilyn!

Marilyn, first of all, let me say that I am absolutely thrilled and honored that you have agreed to do this e-interview for SOS. I know that women everywhere reading what you have to say will be inspired and empowered.

With that, let’s get started!

 1. Please tell us a little about your new project Marin Mind/Scapes. What do you hope that people will get out of it?

Thank you, Sandhya, for inviting me to do this interview and for the wonderful work you are doing with SOS: Sisterhood of Strength to encourage women with mental illness to express their creativity.

 The Marin Mind/Scapes project has several goals. I conducted oral history interviews with eight Marin County landscape artists, some of whom are recovering from severe mental illness. The oral histories complement the visual works of the artists by preserving the artists’ stories and reflections on their work. They are archived in the Anne T. Kent California History Room oral history archives. Decades and perhaps even centuries from now, researchers will access these oral histories to get a glimpse of what it was like to be a Marin County artist in 2010.

From the oral histories, we created a 30-minute documentary featuring the artists speaking of how artistic expression and nature has affected their sense of mental well-being. By showing artists with a mental illness in the mainstream, we aim to help reduce the stigma of mental illness while boosting self-esteem and increasing hope for recovery among mental health clients.

 2. Do you have a personal history with mental illness? Would you mind sharing that with us?

I don’t mind sharing this at all now, but at the time, I was very ashamed. I cut off all contact with my close friends for many years. I had a psychotic break in my early twenties and was hospitalized for several weeks. I was extremely paranoid. I thought I was dead, everyone was dead, and we were all stuck in an everlasting purgatory.

In recent years, I tried to locate my hospital records, but they are long gone, so I do not know my diagnosis. I was treated with Thorazine and Stellazine. I was extremely resistant to the meds. I thought that Thorazine came from the god Thor and Stellazine came from the stars in outer space and that the psych techs were guards at Dachau. Everything was conspiring to get me, and I wanted none of it. I was placed in a strait-jacket in a padded cell for non-compliance. I feel fortunate that I was not given electro-shock therapy, as were several of the patients in the ward.

I suppose the insurance ran out, as I was released after a few weeks. I was more stable but still very unsure of where I was and where I was going. I did not want to be “crazy” but suffered several relapses and ended up back in my childhood home with my parents. During this time, I was on and off meds.  I did not want to take the medication as it made me feel groggy and stupid.  I had a deep need to be “normal” and get my life and career going again. My friends were getting jobs and getting married, and I did not want to be left behind, so I pushed myself forward to “get back on track.”

Over the ensuing years, I’d occasionally hear voices and hallucinate, but I would hold on tight and do a reality check. Was that statue really waving and calling out to me? Maybe, but I would try to ignore it. Somehow I was able to get through without another hospitalization. For many years I lived in fear and avoided any situations I thought might trigger a severe relapse. The man I married provided strong support and security that helped enormously. I am very grateful for my recovery.

I also suffered from panic attacks, particularly on bridges and freeways. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, my activities were largely confined to the city, since I could not drive the bridges crossing the bay. I frequently took the El Camino Real route down to visit my parents in the Santa Clara Valley, enduring several hours of stop and go traffic for what would take about an hour on the freeway.

Over the years, I have desensitized myself to my fear of heights, bridges and freeway driving. I am now able to drive nearly everywhere without fear, except for the Bay Bridge and a narrow stretch of Highway One north of Jenner on the California coast.  I challenge myself when driving to new places. I make good use of maps to familiarize myself with the terrain and road conditions and plan alternate routes if I think the route will be too scary. I am very thankful that over time I have been able to overcome most of my driving fears. It has given me a much greater sense of control and capability.

 3. Why have you chosen the medium of documentary to educate people about mental illness?

Studies by the Chicago Consortium for Stigma Research have identified three types of anti-stigma activities: Contact, Education and Protest. Results from studies show that face-to-face contact with individuals with mental illness produces the best anti-stigma results and the most understanding.

Documentary can reach a larger audience and provide a virtual face-to-face contact that can raise awareness and provoke discussion. Each showing to-date of the Marin Mind/Scapes documentary has been followed by a panel discussion. At the de Young Museum showing, an audience member said she could no longer create her art and asked the artists how they dealt with blocks in artistic expression. The artists on the panel, some renowned and others not, including a homeless artist who lives in a tent on a Marin hilltop, participated in the discussion of how to break through blocks to artistic expression. These interactions helped put a face on mental illness and showed the commonality shared by the artists, regardless of circumstances. Not all showings of the documentary will include a panel discussion, but they will show the faces and voices of artists recovering from a mental illness along with those of other artists.

 4. In your experience, broadly speaking, do you find that people with mental illness find art to be therapeutic?

Yes, creating art can be therapeutic for anyone. In the interviews with artists, a common thread emerged: creating art brings focus. The artist is in the moment, not thinking about anything else but creating art. The creative process can engender an altered state in which the creator can re-visualize and heal traumatic wounds. Creative expression can bring a sense of control and satisfaction not found in other activities, although a couple of artists mentioned that creating art can also be frustrating if the resulting work does not match one’s vision. The expressive process requires a certain surrender to the moment and can bring one closer to self.

5. In your opinion, is the world is slowly acclimatizing to co-existing with people with mental illness? Is the stigma still as bad as when you started out on your career path?

 Stigma does appear to be lessening slightly as our culture gains exposure  through films such as A Beautiful Mind, The Soloist and PBS’ This Emotional Life.  Interestingly, the big pharmaceutical companies seem to be playing a major role in this trend.  It’s nearly impossible to leaf through a magazine or flip though the TV channels without coming across ads targeted to people suffering from bipolar disorder. Pharmaceutical manufacturer AstraZeneca’s elaborate interactive exhibit entitled The Bipolar Journey: Living with Bipolar Depression was hugely present at the recent NAMI Walk in San Francisco. The exhibit is touring the country with aims to educate about bipolar depression, and of course, promote awareness of Seroquel and AstraZeneca.                                                                          

Medication can be very helpful with symptoms of mental illness, yet the medical community still does not understand the neurobiology of mental illness and how medications actually work. Psychiatrists have abdicated their role as healers, as described in Dr. Daniel Carlat’s new book Unhinged: The Trouble With Psychiatry. Many psychiatrists no longer provide talk therapy and in-depth interaction with their patients. Mental illness can be seen as a dis-ease of the soul, but economics and our society’s predilection for the quick fix of medication means that many people suffer in a fragmented mental health system.

Many people experience their first psychotic break as young adults at a       time when they are experiencing enormous life transitions. The stresses to conform in our society are enormous, yet we lack supportive rituals to guide young people through this difficult time of change. Many young people are reluctant or unable to admit that they have a mental illness, which makes recovery that much more challenging. Having a mental illness is painful enough without suffering from shame and discrimination. No one wants to be labeled “mentally ill,” especially if they are told in their early twenties that it’s a lifetime disease and that they must take medication for the rest of their life so that the symptoms don’t return in even greater strength. Recovery is possible, but so often messages of hope and recovery get lost.

 Stigma will also remain strong as long as we continue to criminalize mental illness. A recent study by the Treatment Advocacy Center states that there are now more than three times more seriously mentally ill persons in jails and prisons than in hospitals in the United States. Forty percent of individuals with mental illnesses have been in jail or prison at some time in their lives. Our prisons are not healing centers. Having an illness is not a crime. Our society can be judged by how we treat our most vulnerable, and until we recognize the inhumanity of incarcerating those suffering from mental illness, we cannot make significant inroads in reducing stigma. Stamping out the stigma of mental illness involves increasing global consciousness of our shared humanity and our awareness that we are all One. I hope that Marin Mind/Scapes helps with this effort.

Marilyn, thank you so much for agreeing to this mini-interview for SOS. It has been an honor ‘speaking’ with you!

Visit http://marinmindscapes.com/ to learn more about Marilyn Geary’s documentary.

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