Healing, comfort through art

The completed mural , which was dedicated this weekend, at Horizon House on South 30th Street. STEVE WEINIK
The completed mural , which was dedicated this weekend, at Horizon House on South 30th Street. STEVE WEINIK
Posted: September 16, 2012

Jane Golden

is executive director of the Mural Arts Program

Arthur C. Evans

is commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services

Samantha Matlin

is a special adviser to the commissioner

When we started the mural Finding the Light Within, we wondered whether a project on suicide could work, or even if anyone would participate.

What we were sure of was that we should try. Something. Anything.

The rate of suicide attempts by public high school students in Philadelphia is almost twice the national average, 12.9 percent vs. 6.9 percent, according to a 2009 study by Temple's College of Health Professions and Social Work. The rate among the city's African American youth - 12.1 percent - is far above other major cities'. For example, New York's is 6.5 percent.

We wanted to shed light on youth and adult suicide, and to provide a voice for survivors, as well as for their families and friends. We wanted to educate the public about warning signs. We wanted to show families ways to help loved ones before it's too late. We wanted to build a community of support.

For four years, the Mural Arts Program has partnered with the city's Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services to complete murals that focus on mental health and substance use, homelessness, and trauma. The heart of this work is to give expression to the concerns and aspirations of those who have been silenced, traumatized, or excluded. Through creativity and action, we aim to help individuals heal and to strengthen families and communities.

When people are engaged in creating, they no longer feel alone. At first, they may join a project just to paint or to have something to do. But after participating - by painting or by connecting with others - they begin to see themselves differently. One person told us, "I no longer feel like an addict. I feel like an artist."

When people struggle with addiction or depression, they can come to believe that their illness is their identity. This makes them feel isolated. Joining a community project can help them feel like a part of the world; it can instill some hope. At the same time, this community effort can break down barriers and help overcome negative perceptions between those who struggle with behavioral health issues and those who don't.

This all has happened many times in our collaborations over the last four years, and we saw it again with Finding the Light Within.

Our artist was James Burns, whose grandfather committed suicide, and who has worked on other behavioral-health mural projects. Our community workshops, for those who lost loved ones to suicide or those who survived attempts, were led by poet/artist Theodore Harris, psychologist Terri Erbacher, and Molly Layton, a writer and psychotherapist. They and others skillfully guided workshop participants, knowing the guilt, anger, loss, and more that would accompany individual stories.

"I am in awe of the strength and courage of these folks to come out and bring this serious issue into the public eye," Burns said.

Catherine Siciliano, who lost a son to suicide, was one of about a thousand people who helped make Finding the Light Within a reality. Siciliano, chairman of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, one of our project's partners, said, "The healing was evident in the hugging, the tears, and the friendships that were built. When I look at that mural I can identify the many faces - those lost and their survivors. . . . It was one of the most healing processes I have ever witnessed in the three years that I have been healing from this tragedy."

Finding The Light Within provided a safe environment for everyone to grieve and heal, talk about their feelings, meet others, and not feel alone. A qualitative evaluation from Yale University's School of Medicine confirmed this. Participants also understood that such a large-scale project would be an inspiration to many who view it. They realize that they worked on something beautiful and meaningful, and that they were connecting to a greater good beyond themselves and their pain.

We dedicated Finding the Light Within this weekend, during National Suicide Prevention Week, at Horizon House, a place of refuge for those dealing with mental health, substance use, or homelessness issues.

Through an honest, productive discourse, we were able to talk about what works, what doesn't, and how to get help. In the process, we learned that there was a large community concerned about suicide. With this mural, we created an even larger community.

We all recognize that suicide happens, and that we won't get anywhere if we keep the issue in the dark. If an art project inspires someone to seek help or connect with others, then that is a powerful outcome. Through the focus on suicide, we saw a commonality, and through the commonality there was comfort.

Contact the writers at jane.golden@muralarts.org, Arthur.C.Evans@phila.gov, and Samantha.Matlin@phila.gov.

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