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Writing workshop aims to lessen stigma of mental illness


Self-Portrait With Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird
Frida Kahlo, “Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (Autorretrato con collar de espinas y colibri),” 1940. Nikolas Muray Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

I saw Walker Art Center’s breath-taking Frida Kahlo exhibit the other week and how her brush conveyed her pain: the agony of her husband’s promiscuity and her own multiple surgeries and miscarriages plays out in graphic imagery and color.

Kahlo died in 1954 at age 47 but not before she’d produced more than 60 revealing self-portraits. Look at her “Self-Portrait With Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird.” That Frida is bleeding and stoic and quite majestic, but seriously hurting. “I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to,” Kahlo said, as quoted on Walker’s website.

The show got me thinking about “Creativity and Mental Health: Through Writers’ Voices,” a recent workshop organized by the Hamm Clinic in St. Paul and a striking effort to show creativity’s healing effects on the mind. A panel of writers, a therapist and psychologists shared personal and professional insights.

Workshop part of Hamm Clinic outreach
The event is the brainchild of Bea Sinna, a good friend of mine and a longtime volunteer for that nonprofit mental health clinic. Sinna calls the effort “Arts and Minds,” and it’s part of Hamm’s effort to lessen the stigma of mental illness and to make the clinic better known in the community. I know that because I did some freelance writing for them a couple of years ago.

Poet Annie Breitenbucher told how when she was 13 she was hospitalized with depression and felt compelled to write “notebooks and notebooks of perfectly hideous poetry.” She slowly realized it was a way to work through her feelings.

Read a few lines of her poem “Every Day Different” and you’ll gain insight into the recurring, all-enveloping nature of depression and the energy it takes to fight it. Breitenbucher writes of “sadness that kicks the wind out of your ribs.” She urges, “When the voices of self-contempt pick the lock in your head, shout back.” And she counsels bravery: “it is the work you have been assigned. And you will do it, every day, different.”

Now Breitenbucher writes about the sport of running for the Star Tribune and writes poetry published by the Laurel Poetry Collective.

Madelon Sprengnether was at the discussion, talking about her memoir, “Crying at the Movies,” and the therapeutic nature of writing. She called creativity a powerful resource for mental health. “Creativity gives one the opportunity to exercise some control and mastery of difficult areas of our lives and the opportunity for integration,” the University of Minnesota English professor said.

Creativity and writing powerful therapies
She said she realized in the course of her writing how profoundly her father’s drowning affected her both as a child and adult. Though she had had professional help, she needed also to express her emotions in her art, she said.

“Creativity finds a way,” agreed Carolyn Holbrook, founder of the Whittier Writers’ Workshop, former program director of the Loft Literary Center and a published essayist. “Writing and knitting have saved my life more than once,” she said, reflecting on her deep depression some 30 years ago. She was divorced with four kids and had no job and no money.

Tom M. Ellis, a licensed marriage and family therapist and executive director of the Center for Grief, Loss & Transition, suggests the creative process as an important tool for healing. Women tend to journal, he said, but he just as often encourages men to write.

The seminar got people talking about mental health, and that’s a change for the better. As a child in the 1960s, I remember a holiday without a favorite uncle and asking my mother where he was. “In the hospital,” she said. “What for?” I persisted, waiting for an answer slow in coming. “Oh… he broke his leg,” she said. Only years later did I learn he’d been hospitalized for depression.

The stigma of mental illness still permeates society today and serves as a barrier to recovery, said Xan Banker, a staff psychologist at Hamm Clinic. Statistics show most people with mental illness don’t seek help, she said. Would you agree? Let me know.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Paul Scott on 11/21/2007 - 11:36 am.

    While I hold nothing but compassion and the best wishes for those suffering from mental illness, I can’t help but wonder if the notion of “the stigma of mental illness” is a unhelpful narrative whose time has long since passed.

    Antidepressant medications, for instance, are one of the most widely prescribed class of medications in the world. The depression memior is a fixture of publishing (William Styron, Andrew Solomon, Kay Redfield Jamison etc.), and last summer, the Chicago Cubs announced a partnership with Zoloft. That would seem to suggest widespread acceptance of the fact of mental illness. (Disclosure: I have written in the past about the possibility that the drugs are over prescribed and their side effects under recognized.)

    “The stigma of mental illness,” moreover, is a convenient argument for mental health organizations, well meaning though they are, to thwart common sense safety warnings connected to mental health medications, and in the process, do the bidding of drug companies. It has given us the culture surrounding mental health meds today, where the open acknowledgment of clinical trial data has been supplanted by a “need to know” public health strategy, one described by author Joseph Glenmullen as “an authoritarian approach to medicine.” Just a thought.

  2. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/26/2007 - 09:47 am.

    Paul Scott questioned the fact that the stigma of mental illness continues,
    because now pharmaceutical companies forge alliances with groups like the Chicago Cubs and openly market their medications in public venues. I respectfully disagree with Mr. Scott. I have not seen a significant
    reduction in stigma related to mental illness in the last three decades. As
    Executive Director of the Mental Health Association of Minnesota, I know
    that our Client Advocates help over 1,300 individuals and families each year in our Individual Advocacy Program. The people we talk to share their real experiences and their fears that their employers, colleagues, friends, or family will learn about their mental illness and hold it against them. By definition, stigma is a mark of shame, disgrace, or disapproval, which results in an individual being shunned or rejected by others. The stigma associated with mental illnesses remains strong, and generally increases the more an individual’s behavior differs from the “norm”. There is no reason to question Paul Scott’s 11/21/07 sincerity and compassion, but based on my direct personal and professional experience, I would not say that the stigma of mental illness has long since passed. We have more science based treatments and better medications to treat mental illnesses, but recent studies, like the CATIE study from the National Institute of Mental Health and other research, demonstrate how complex it can be to treat mental illnesses and achieve good outcomes for people. There is no one size fits all method, and, despite our improved knowledge and care, people are still discriminated against and treated badly because they have a mental illness.

  3. Submitted by Paul Scott on 11/28/2007 - 10:39 am.

    In the event that someone may still be reading a comment string on a week-old article, I would like to thank the executive director for her thoughtful post, and for relaying her sincere experience in witnessing widespread stigma surrounding mental illness some 13 years after the publication of Listening to Prozac.

    I will say that it surprises me. I have written about having taken an SSRI, and have witnessed so many friends and characters in popular culture casually mention their use of the drugs that I have perhaps wrongly placed weight on my experience that their use is normative. If use of one of the most popular class of drugs in the country does still engender shame, that is strange indeed.

    That said, I would like to challenge those who advocate for mental illness treatment to reconsider their apparent assumption that one cannot simultaneously fight stigma and support safety warnings on the medications. I do not know the policy of MHAOM on this issue, but at the FDA hearings on the issue in December I witnessed a long parade of mental health advocacy organization representives testify to their certainty that safety warnings on SSRI’s would result in fewer patients taking them — being that so many have to overcome a stigma to seek help in the first place.

    One finds it hard not to conclude that this argument pits the interests of an untested public health policy assumption (warnings will feed stigma-engendered reluctance to seek medication-based help) against something much more basic to an open society: informed consent. To me, that seems an unnecessarily divisive policy approach for mental health community to have adopted, and one which has helped prevent a clear eyed conversation over safety data on the drugs. Moreover, it has not helped the trust one places in the objectivity of mental health advocacy policy groups that so many of them have taken funding from makers of the medications in question.

  4. Submitted by Susan Lesch on 03/20/2008 - 12:41 pm.

    Another late comment, sorry I just found this article and its comments. I am not an M.D. but I read about the NIH CATIE study when the first results were published. I don’t know if HTML works in MinnPost comments, but here is the study. Take a look at the subheading, “Older Medication May Be More Cost-Effective for Some Patients with Schizophrenia”.

    The resounding first news from CATIE was not so much “how complex it can be to treat mental illnesses and achieve good outcomes for people”, to quote Ms. Meicher, but rather that modern antipsychotics are no more effective in treating schizophrenia than an old, now-generic drug that costs next to nothing by comparison. I am afraid that I see and hear someone here trying to “treat mental illnesses”, and I wonder, who it is who is far too ready to accept the sales pitches of big pharma’s legendary salesforces.

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