National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Creating Your Way to Recovery

By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Coordinator

The connection between mental illness and art is strong. Throughout history, numerous artists have lived with mental illness. Charles Dickens, Beethoven, Vincent Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf are just a few of the many who have become famous through their art.

Fostering artistic abilities is extremely important but sometimes difficult for individuals living with mental illness. The symptoms of many mental illnesses make it difficult for many to hone and utilize their artistic talents. However, art, regardless of the medium, has been shown to be a positive means of expression for those living with mental illness and is sometimes used as a method of therapy. The ability to create art should therefore not be discouraged but instead be wildly supported.

This is what The Awakenings Project from outside of Chicago in Wheaton, Ill. aims precisely to do. Since 1996 when the first Awakenings Project art show was held the program has helped hundreds around the country, many from the Chicago area, develop their craft and find an outlet for their creative abilities through all forms of art.

Awakenings provides an arena for individuals living with mental illness to not only improve their artistic ability but also one to help support others going through similar experiences. Joining together with fellow artists, writers and musicians, members can overcome the social isolation that is often a consequence of their illness.

"The community and network of support reaches far beyond the walls of the studio, resulting in long-lasting friendships and collaborative relationships," said Robert Lundin, co-founder of the Awakenings Project in an interview.

"Awakenings is not just a place, it's a movement. And it's not just camaraderie, it's family," added Irene O'Neil, another co-founder of the Awakenings Project.

At the NAMI National Convention in early July, The Awakenings Project helped put on the first ever NAMI poetry slam and an art exhibition to showcase the relationship between mental illness and art.

Poet and philanthropist Yashi Brown, a member of the legendary Jackson family, began the evening by reciting some of her work to the enthusiastic audience of more than a hundred. Following her, a field of participants vied for a cash prize and bragging rights. After the judges deliberated, Kathleen Lojas and Susie Piaseki were found to have tied for first place. The winner was decided with a flip of a coin--Susie Piasecki was the lucky champion.

With nearly 100 artists, the art exhibition was filled with the astounding and provocative art of individuals living with mental illness. A gallery of some of the artworks displayed at the NAMI National Convention can be seen in this web gallery.

"Today, the Awakenings Art Show and The Awakenings Review (a publication for literary arts) are the most vital of the organization's programs, though there are nascent programs in music and drama," said Robert Lundin. However, he acknowledges that Awakenings' job is not done. "Awakenings has more work to do… and sights are set on keeping Awakenings vibrant for many years to come."