R.I. nonprofit uses the arts to tackle the stigma of mental illness
Providence Journal - 2/20/2019
Feb. 20--PROVIDENCE -- The role of art is increasingly embraced as a means of furthering understanding of mental illnesses and acceptance of those millions of Americans who live with them. Now comes a promising new approach, Art to Reduce Mental Health Stigma, or ARMS, that is attracting an appreciative and growing audience.
The brainchild of two Brown University undergraduates, Mirabella Roberts and Nicole Spring, ARMS' objective is "to start conversations about mental health, a crucial subject that is often approached with discomfort," through workshops, performances and other events open to everyone, living with mental illness or not. The public, in other words.
A native of Maryland, Roberts lives with depression and anxiety and has lost two close friends to suicide, the second-leading cause of death for Americans ages 15 to 34. She has experienced first-hand the healing powers of dance, music, painting, drawing, writing, podcasting and other forms of artistic expression -- and, with ARMS, the power of talk in reducing the fears and misunderstandings that can impede treatment and recovery.
"Our premise is that art brings people together," Roberts told The Journal. "Mental health is often spoken about in very medical, impersonal terms. So we bring people together in community spaces to make art -- all sorts of different kinds of art."
And with the making and performing, Roberts said, come "open honest and vulnerable conversations surrounding mental health ... We find that art is a very powerful tool for engaging people who might not otherwise be engaging with the topic of mental health."
ARMS began with a conversation over coffee in February 2018 with classmate Spring, who is not on campus this semester. The two were taking a course, "Building Powerful Organizations for Social Change," and Roberts spoke of the positive impact on her own mental health of reading her poems to others.
"I myself was being empowered to take charge of my narrative to lower my own stigma against mental health and start to get treatment start, to 'write through it,' start to have really honest conversations with the people around me," Roberts said. She penned a book about living with depression titled "Hello. I'm Going Back to Bed. Good Morning," that she hopes to publish one day. Creating it, she said, helped in the process of "being empowered to take charge of my narrative to lower my own stigma against mental health and start to get treatment."
Coffee over, Roberts said, she and classmate Spring "decided to get to work on something that day. We weren't really sure what it was [yet] but we wanted to further explore what Rhode Island had in terms of art and mental health. We knew that we didn't want to be art therapists -- we're explicitly not an art-therapy organization, none of us are doctors.
"So that day, we set out and we just started having tons of meetings with everyone," people from many walks of life who "use art as a means of coping with their personal narratives, as a way of engaging with political issues or social issues. We just started learning everything that we could from the people around us and then meanwhile doing research."
Last spring, ARMS was incorporated as a nonprofit organization. In September, said Roberts, who is now CEO, ARMS was certified as a 501(c)(3) entity by the Internal Revenue Service. So far, the staff of 14 works on a volunteer basis, according to Roberts; a 10-member advisory board helps provide guidance. Most events are free, and all are open to everyone, student and non-student alike.
In addition to several public events and more in the planning, Roberts said, ARMS is working with students at Hope High School. The organization has opened a new web site with an online store, www.armsnostigma.org and has a social media presence through a Twitter account, @arms_nostigma; a Facebook page, facebook.com/armsnostigma; and an Instagram account, instagram.com/armsnostigma.
"We really try and target all sorts of different areas of people, all sorts of different populations that we know both need the development and mental health education, but more so may just need to have critical conversations with people who have mental illness and get to know them. And a great way to do that is through art. Art is really personal. It really builds communities.
"And while it does these things, it also has an individual transformation with people to process their trauma, to be empowered to share their stories."
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