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Mental Health Recovery and the Arts

By Richard Krzyzanowski

Most people will seize an opportunity to talk about themselves, as we tend to be our favorite subjects. Of course, we all tend to edit our material to some extent, highlighting the flattering and omitting that which we feel others may not approve of or understand.  Many of us – somewhere between one quarter to one fifth of us – are reluctant to open that door at all, however, because of where the process of disclosure might lead: We are people with a personal experience of mental health challenges, a subject so touchy that often not only do we avoid discussing our lives with others, but sometimes hesitate to even think about it ourselves.

This is the face of stigma, whether public stigma or its internalized brother, self-stigma, and the damage it can do is very real, from lost opportunities in society to lost self-esteem to the radical attempt to escape this painful situation entirely through suicide.

The most productive strategies used to fight stigma and its impact on lives involve using the truth to give perspective: We are not defined by our diagnoses or our illnesses; mental health issues touch most of us at some point in our lives, either directly or through someone we know and may care about; there is life after and with such challenges, which we call “recovery,” a powerful concept precisely because we had all been told for years that it was not possible.

Once such doors are opened, we now have the room to get on with life -- even introduce a celebration of those parts of us that have nothing to do our “conditions.” Engaging our creativity through the arts has played an especially significant role in helping people find a positive identity in society and for ourselves.

Society honors and venerates the artist, whatever their art or craft -- visual, dramatic, musical, literary, etc. When a person who manages a mental health issue is transformed into an artist, the mental health side of things gets cut down to size, in the eyes of others as well as in the mirror, and the result can be wonderfully liberating and exhilarating. Certainly, the mental health issues don’t go away, but they become appropriately contextualized as what they should be: Just another of the challenges that life presents to us all in one way or another, and just another facet in the complex internal diversity that uniquely defines us all.


Richard Krzyzanowski is a former career journalist who came to the mental health field more than ten years ago, following his own experience of a mental health crisis. He currently works as a trainer and organizer—primarily within the mental health "client" community—and is well-known for his advocacy as a member of several state-level committees, including his role as chairman of the California Client Action Workgroup.





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