Local artists, writers share stories to erase stigma of mental illness

  • Artist Emily Calvo provided this interpretation of Mary Ruth Coffey's story "The Dinner Party."

    Artist Emily Calvo provided this interpretation of Mary Ruth Coffey's story "The Dinner Party."

  • Art therapy is used at the Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates.

    Art therapy is used at the Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates.

  • This painting was made by a patient in the art therapy program at Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates.

    This painting was made by a patient in the art therapy program at Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates.

  • Naseem Jamnia, left, her parents and brother.

    Naseem Jamnia, left, her parents and brother.

  • Sindee Viano's image is an interpretation of a story titled "Letter to My Former Self" by Naseem Jamnia.

    Sindee Viano's image is an interpretation of a story titled "Letter to My Former Self" by Naseem Jamnia.

By Janice Youngwith
Daily Herald Correspondent
Updated 5/4/2015 12:05 PM

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but local writers and artists participating in a Mental Health America of Illinois anti-stigma project are trying to take that adage a step further. They say combining the intensity of the shared personal stories of mental health with an artist's visual interpretation sends a powerful message of hope and inspiration.

"There are many levels of stigma when it comes to mental health and people are sometimes afraid to seek help due to judgments, labeling and potential repercussions," said Mary Ruth Coffey, MHAI's executive director, who designed and is leading a peer-led anti-stigma project, Manifesting Healthy Futures: 24/7 Voices and Visions of Wellness.


The written stories and accompanying artistic renderings connect 48 writers and artists from eight states who share a diversity of struggles and recovery, uniqueness of style and interpretation with a shared goal of healing, transformation and hope. The stories and artwork became part of a series of community conversations held in venues across the country that culminated with a full project premier at the 28th MHAI Gala on April 30.

"Local community conversations with the writers and artists helped jump-start a dialogue about stigma, and whether sharing and hearing stories can reduce the stigma of mental health issues," said Coffey, who notes community conversations began at the seventh annual International Anti-Stigma Conference in San Francisco this winter, and making their way to Illinois venues such as Oak Park, Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, and Chicago's South Side.

Sharing her personal story

As the author of one of the 24 short stories written by those who have experienced or lived a mental-health challenge, Coffey says her tale is not unique.

"The truth is that everyone deals with health issues, including mental health, and it's time to be able to be open so that each of us has the opportunity to live as well as we can," said Coffey, who recently assumed the helm at MHAI after many years working in the nonprofit cultural arts and human services arena, focusing on domestic violence, homelessness, visual and performance art, and mental health. "People can and do live quite well with mental-health challenges. But many suffer every day, keeping their struggles a secret because of the fear of stigma and resulting loss. If we reduce the stigma around mental health, everyone can have the opportunity to live well and joyfully."

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In an unprecedented move, Coffey shared her personal story of grief and grieving, and ultimate journey to joy in a short story titled "The Dinner Party," which was then interpreted by an artist and rendered in various oils and painting techniques on canvas.

"I couldn't ask participants to courageously share personal stories unless I was willing to do so myself," says Coffey. "The artist who envisioned my story in her oil painting did so in a beautiful, inspirational and joyful way. As a yoga teacher myself, I have a deep appreciation for the piece's energy, flow and the use of colors in depicting both the emotional blocks to wellness -- such as trauma, fear, anxiety and depression -- as well as the joy, courage and health of the characters."

Naseem's story

Among other inspirational stories shared was that of Chicago resident Naseem Jamnia, a 23-year-old, 2013 college graduate hoping to begin a doctorate program in neurobiology.

Naseem, whose name means gentle breeze, says she has known since she was 12 years old and entering the seventh grade that something was wrong.

"As a child, I wasn't able to articulate my deepest fears and started cutting myself as a way to escape the pain of those fears," said Jamnia, who says depression runs in her family. "I worried about my brother, who is 19 months younger and who had intensive medical, therapy and behavioral needs due to his autism, and my parents, especially my mom who provided for his care."


At 15, Jamnia started counseling to help deal with what she calls typical parent-teen challenges and arguments, and began to broach some of those issues. While not underweight, she was diagnosed with a not-otherwise-specified anorexia-type eating disorder and learned her weight issues were likely a part of her large issue of depression. While a student at the University of Chicago, Jamnia entered its eating disorders therapy program and later began seeing a psychiatrist to help with mood stabilization.

Now in what she describes as a "good place," Jamnia, says she escaped fears surrounding the stigma of treatment since she started therapy as a young teen.

"I did worry those surrounding me might see my challenges as a way to seek attention, but the challenge of depression was truly something I could not control," said Jamnia, who recalls her third year of college being especially tough as she battled depression and struggled to maintain her class schedule and grades.

Since that time, she reports she has ditched toxic relationships and found that by sharing her story others are opening up to her as well.

"Personally I've written about this topic in a million ways and when I learned of this project thought it was finally time to share my 'Letter To My Former Self' publicly," she says.

Downers Grove artist depicts story

Longtime Downers Grove resident Sindee Viano, a former Avery Coonley School art teacher and art therapist, says she was honored to be selected to depict Jamnia's story and her journey from despair to wellness.

With a self-described preference for acrylic painting and sculpture, Viano worked from her home studio using acrylic gels and special mediums to create a bumpy texturized and layered piece of work. Blocked with a black background symbolic of Jamnia's initial despair, Viano envisioned two female figures depicting two sides of the writer. Fall colors of red, orange and yellow add a sense of hope and joy, while swirling winds call to mind Naseem's name. Iridescent gel paints lead viewers to visually see her journey to hope and Naseem's own words on the swirling wind reaffirm positive messages of self-worth and image.

"I imagined Naseem as a young woman and while we never met, the words of her story led me to understand her journey to joy and happiness," said Viano, who believes art therapy is a viable tool for recovery from mental illness, for pain management, and even in the case of chronic and terminal illness.

Role of art as therapy

Viano's words are on target, according to Jose Alcantara, an art therapist with more than a decade of experience working with patients at the Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates, and Alexian Brothers Hospice.

"Art therapy, and other expressive therapies like drama, music, movement, writing and recreation, are evidence-based complements to the cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure and response prevention, acceptance and commitment therapy, family therapy and more we use to promote self-recognition, self-regulation, self-reconstruction and self-reinforcement," said Alcantara, who says combining nonverbal image making with the physical process of creating art offers empowerment.

With a strong fine arts background, Alcantara says he frequently draws on the techniques of Vincent Van Gogh, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, the grandson of Sigmund Freud, to help patients connect spiritually and find sacredness in the ordinary.

"Art therapy doesn't have a blueprint," Alcantara said. He says the use of expressive therapy in a holistic approach to wellness isn't new.

"We are a visual society and because mental illness often is a hidden or invisible illness, patients often are caught unexpected and have difficulty finding the words to adequately express themselves. Making a visual connection can be key and become an important part of discovery, healing and the celebratory process."

Alcantara says working at Alexian Brothers Hospice has afforded him the opportunity to see how art can offer support to those that are grieving.

"It also allows us to find authentic new ways to validate the person and find meaning, despite breaking down of the body," he said. "It also can help build spiritual awareness and serve as an expression of love that survives long after the person is no longer with us."

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