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Inside Out Arts exhibit helps eradicate stigma surrounding mental illness

The Santa Fe New Mexican - 9/23/2017

Sept. 23--For decades, Rebecca Rest hid her depression like a dirty secret.

"I was ashamed of it," she said.

The Santa Fe artist, now 68, first began to experience severe depressive disorder as a teenager. She never spoke of it to friends or family.

Through her artwork -- most often a process of cutting paper into tiny pieces and reordering the fragments, as if imposing order on her life, Rest said -- she tried to heal herself.

When she reached her 50s, Rest finally decided she needed to reach out and get help. "It took nine years for me to get the right medication," she said in a recent interview. "... I felt like a guinea pig." But when she did find the right treatment about six years ago, she said, "It's been like a new life."

Rest is one of about 40 artists with mental illness whose works are on display at the Santa Fe Community Gallery as part of the fifth annual exhibit of Inside Out Arts, a program of the Compassionate Touch Network. The local nonprofit, led by founder and Executive Director Michele Herling -- named in 2016 as one of The New Mexican's 10 Who Made a Difference -- has been trying to eradicate stigmas surrounding mental health through performing and fine arts programs, as well as outreach in the schools.

The mission is deeply personal for Herling, whose brother, Bruce, suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child and later developed a mental illness. Some of his work is included in the show.

For Rest, who remained silent about her illness even after receiving treatment, participating in the show was a big step toward busting her own stigma. "This is really a coming out for me," she said. One of her cut-paper pieces, titled Fragmented, is an image of Rest in her youth. "It took a lot for me to think about this ... whether I could put myself on a wall and say, 'I have a mental illness.' "

This year's Inside Out show, which drew a crowd of about 150 people to the Community Gallery for an opening reception Sept. 15, is the largest and the best, organizers said. Dozens of pieces already have sold, but the exhibit will be on display through Oct. 14, offering viewers a glimpse into the inner lives of local residents suffering from conditions ranging from anxiety disorders to schizophrenia.

"I think the work is getting more and more confident, and I think the artists are getting more confident," said Bruce Velick, who has been curating the show for the past four years. Most years, the show has been held at a local gallery, on display for just a couple of days. This year, however, the group was selected by the city of Santa Fe Arts Commission for a one-time opportunity to hold a monthlong exhibit in the Community Gallery, a public art space in the Santa Fe Community Convention Center. The venture had support from several local custom framers, providing a final professional touch to the artists' work, including Wilkinson & Co., Perspectives Fine Art Framing and Gavin Collier & Co.

The exhibit comes as the community continues to lament the death of Anthony Benavidez -- a young man with schizophrenia who was shot during a July standoff with Santa Fe police -- and to push for solutions to mental health crises.

Santa Fe County is planning to develop a new behavioral health crisis triage center to help address the issue.

Awareness has been building, both locally and nationally, of a need for increased and improved patient access to mental and behavioral health services. The most recent federal data, from 2015, show about 18 percent of adults suffer from a mental illness each year, and more than 20 percent of teenagers experience a severe disorder. Suicides rates have steadily risen in the last decade, and substance abuse has surged, with opioid overdose deaths at an all-time high in the U.S. in 2016.

In New Mexico, which long has struggled with a substance abuse epidemic and one of the nation's highest suicide rates, at least 2o percent of residents have a mental illness, according to federal data from 2015.

Still, a sense of shame persists for those who suffer from disorders.

Valerie Webster, 51, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, had her first manic episode at age 8, she said. Not long after, the feeling of euphoria gave way to a deep depression. The pattern continued, sometimes plunging her into such an intense despair that she cut her wrists and arms -- a desperate attempt to bleed the pain out of her veins: "If I cut it out of me, I'll feel better."

Webster discussed concerns about her mental state with her loved ones over the years, but they dismissed her fears. "People just said, 'That's your Latina blood,' " she said.

After she finally began treatment a few years ago, a psychiatrist encouraged her to try to balance her moods through art.

Webster, an Inside Out veteran who participates in weekly art workshops through the Compassionate Touch Network, has painted about cutting, images of dark pink hands with cut lines, and about the powerful surges and plummets of her emotions. People have approached her at the Inside Out shows to let her know "they get it."

"It makes you realize you're not alone," she said.

Rest also has come to understand, through the art program, that she doesn't have to endure her illness in isolation.

"Sending out my invitations," she said, "I was just quite surprised by how many people have identified with my story and also have suffered from depression."

Contact Cynthia Miller at 505-986-3095 or


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