Mental Health

The isolation and anxiety about our physical health brought on by the pandemic have put obvious strain on our mental health and our mental health care system.

Political polarization and uncertainty, the racial injustice roiling our streets, climate change, and other shared stressors make matters worse. These issues underline a simple fact: mental health has a collective, community dimension.

Other factors at the community level can contribute to mental illness, too, including stigma associated with mental health problems, substance abuse, low-quality and high-density housing, blight, insufficient green space, and too many liquor and tobacco stores. Problems in rural areas and small towns include social isolation, stigma, a lack of privacy, and limited access to mental health care.

Therapy is important, but a narrow focus on individual mental health can overlook harmful structures, policies, environments, and other negatives beyond the influence of individuals or their physicians.

On the bright side, we’re also coming to recognize the positives connected to identification with place: social support from friends and neighbors and cooperative action toward shared goals, which appear to decrease depression and anxiety. And promising work is being done at the places where community, arts and culture, health, and social change intersect, to challenge the institutional roadblocks to mental health while celebrating and supporting community values that help people heal.

Light the Barricades

Three Sites for Meditating on Resentments, Judgements, and Doubts

Location: Los Angeles, California Artist Role: Concept and design Partners: The Annenberg Foundation, Front Signs

Visitors consider the Resentment barrier during temporary installation at Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles. Photo courtesy Candy Chang and James A. Reeves.

Facing our most uncomfortable thought patterns, including resentment, judgment of others, and doubt, can promote our mental health—but only if we take the time to do it. And that’s not easy in a modern world full of distractions, and at a moment when the national mood is anxious, angry, and uncertain.

In 2019 artists Candy Chang and James A. Reeves created three luminous, double-sided wall-like structures in public locations to help passersby contemplate those inner barriers to peace of mind.

The walls were installed for two weeks at three sites in Los Angeles: Grand Park in downtown LA (Resentment), the Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica (Judgement), and outside the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in Exposition Park (Doubt). The three walls were later on view together as part of the exhibit W|alls: Defend, Divide, and the Divine at the Annenberg Space for Photography.

One side of the eight-by-twenty-seven-foot walls (each one actually a huge solar-powered light box) was labelled with one the three barriers, along with a long line of text relating a fable that illuminated the topic. On the other side, there were three stools on which visitors were invited to sit and contemplate relevant questions that popped up on the wall before them—Who do you judge unfairly and why? What is blocking your path? —while the image of an hourglass measured out five minutes of reflection time.

Presented by Chang and Reeves as “a modern ritual for these distracting times,” the project required close to a year of planning, but the light box/walls were fabricated by local company Front Signs in less than a month, including custom metal work and decals, printing, assembly, and installation.

“These emotions are largely universal, [and] they feel especially resonant today. They echo the psychosocial dynamics defining the current American mood. By reckoning with these barriers at a personal level, perhaps we can become more compassionate in our public life,” say the artists.

“Every day we are bombarded by so many distractions all the time that it’s really easy to neglect our emotional health, what really matters to us, what’s important to us, how we can be better for the people we love, the people around us, how we might be more in tune with the darker corners of our minds and where we can grow and change," Chang has said. "We thought about the wall both physically and emotionally, the wall as a place that prevents us from connecting with others or with ourselves, the wall as a site for ritual, and so that got us thinking: what if we had walls where we could stop and pause and reflect on our own inner obstructions?”

The three panels installed together at the Annenberg Space for Photography. Photo courtesy Candy Chang and James A. Reeves.

Every day we are bombarded by so many distractions all the time that it’s really easy to neglect our emotional health, what really matters to us.
—Candy Chang

Participants consider prompts on the meditation side of the Resentment barrier at Grand Park in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy Candy Chang and James A. Reeves.

By reckoning with these barriers at a personal level, perhaps we can become more compassionate in our public life. —Candy Chang and James A. Reeves

The Doubt barrier during temporary installation at the Annenberg Community Beach House. Photo courtesy Candy Chang and James A. Reeves.

Culture of Recovery

How Learning the Crafts and Arts of Appalachia is Helping Young People Heal from Substance Abuse

Location: Hindman, Kentucky Artist Role: Educator, Youth Worker Partners: Hickory Hill Recovery Center and the Knott County Drug Court

Culture of Recovery offers a holistic approach to helping community members fight addiction by tapping into the unique music and craft heritage of Appalachia.

Led by the Appalachian Artisan Center, and in partnership with local substance abuse recovery programs and the healthcare industry, the program, begun in 2017, gives young adults recovering from substance abuse a wide range of opportunities to work beside skilled artisans. Workshops on art and entrepreneurship are on offer, along with apprenticeships in a variety of trades and crafts. Participants can also attend one-day “art slams,” in which they finish an artwork in a single session.

The workshops include activities such as painting, journal-making, and cooking, while the apprenticeships include craft trades such as ceramics, blacksmithing, and luthiery—building and repairing guitars, dulcimers, and other stringed instruments.

Hindman has strong roots in the musical and craft culture of the Appalachians, but its traditions and its social fabric have been severely tested by the disproportionate rate at which the opioid crisis hit the village—overdose rates are twice the national average. The Appalachian Artisan Center’s mission to "develop the economy of eastern Kentucky through our arts, culture, and heritage” led them to support this project; they see the challenge of substance abuse as both a health issue and an economic problem.

Taking part in the program has helped the young adults develop a sense of self-worth, a belief in their abilities, and a deeper connection to Hindman and its traditions. Culture of Place demonstrates that culture and creativity are important paths to recovery.

At the Appalachian Artisan Center, community members who are fighting addiction can work beside skilled artisans in workshops such as blacksmithing. Photo courtesy Appalachian Artisan Center.

“We’re dusty old woodworkers, not trained therapists, but so many times now, giving somebody something to do has proved to be a powerful step in their recovery.”
—Doug Naselroad, master luthier and co-founder of Culture of Recovery, in the New York Times

A participant hammers a knife at a blacksmith workshop.

Participants test the thickness of a mandolin.

An apprentice, Ryan Patrick, grinds down rough edges.

ABOVE: Building string instruments at a luthiery shop.

BELOW: Performance by the Knott Downtown Radio Hour.

Photos courtesy Appalachian Artisan Center.

Porch Light Program

Dozens of Murals Supporting Mental Health in Philadelphia

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Lead Organization: Mural Arts Philadelphia Artist Role: Creation of Murals Partners: City of Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS), service recipients, service providers, community members, and other city stakeholders

It’s no secret that access to mental health services can be difficult in many communities. In response, Philadelphia’s renowned Mural Arts program has joined with the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS) to use the power of art to support community mental health by “providing opportunities to contribute to meaningful works of public art,” as the Mural Arts web site says.

Addressing issues such as substance use, faith and spirituality, homelessness, trauma, immigration, war, and community safety and tension, the art becomes a tool for individual and community healing.

The Mural Arts/DBHIDS partnership began win 2007 with Bridging the Gap, a collaborative mural in a Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood created by longtime African American residents and recent West African immigrants. Bringing the two communities together to design and paint a mural representing their collective story eased tensions between the groups, whose discussions and work together led to more neighborhood collaboration and an annual community conference. With the warm and inviting porch light, a symbol of safety and shelter, as a central theme, dozens of murals have been created by hundreds of participants with the help of thousands of community members since then.

According to DBHIDS and Mural Arts, art-making can supplement traditional behavioral health treatment, supporting the mental health of participants while also improving the neighborhoods where they live. Beyond these immediate results—and the broader goal of improving individual, community, and public health—the program seeks to lift up the voices, concerns, and experiences of unheard community members, as well as to increase public awareness of behavioral health issues.

Participatory art-making helps reduce mental health and substance abuse stigmas too, say the two organizations in a manual aimed at helping others replicate the model in their own communities.

The program appears to be working; researchers from the Yale School of Medicine found that residents living within one mile of a mural reported increases in neighborhood safety and improved trust among neighbors.

TOP: The mural Almost Home (2018), by artist Eric Okdeh. Photo by Steve Weinik for Mural Arts Philadelphia.

ABOVE: A participant reads a text prompt for artist Candy Chang's interactive mural The Atlas of Tomorrow: A Device for Philosophical Reflections (2016). Photo by Candy Chang.

Collection of Creative Decisions (2019) by artist James Burns. Photo by Steve Weinik for Mural Arts Philadelphia.

"We have co-created public art that not only seeks to impact the neighborhood physical environment, but becomes a vehicle for personal connection and community healing." - Porch Light manual

Bridging the Gap (2008) by artist Willis "Nomo" Humphrey. Photo by Jack Ramsdale for Mural Arts Philadelphia.

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