Why is Mental Health Awareness so Important to Me?
In 2011 I was new to the Magoski Arts Colony or basically the Fullerton Art Walk. The community was in a frenzy of protests after the police beating and murder of schizophrenic homeless man, Kelly Thomas. I had been in a psychiatric hospital myself with Kelly, he was my roommate, and from my experience of some of the psychiatric system as well as the coldness of the Fullerton community itself, it seemed to me that he was killed for having a severely misunderstood illness. I soon met his father, Ron Thomas, and told him of the troubles I had had myself. At the time there was a news station interviewing people, but I declined because I didn’t know much about the case. The community, however, didn’t feel his schizophrenia was that important and many protestors were cruel and discriminatory to us themselves. Anyway, the artists of the colony tended to identify various causes to represent their art. Some chose police brutality as was the obvious issue of the case, others had different themes like gay rights, animal rights or feminism. I decided the time was right to represent mental health Awareness. There were some problems, a key promoter harassed me severely and when I responded on Facebook he sent two police to my door. This is the same promoter who created the show focusing on the death of Kelly Thomas and actively fights against bad cops and police brutality who sent them to my door to rough me up. Nonetheless, I saw I would sometimes be in for a fight,
I learned early in my life being in institutions and run down boarding homes that it would be easy to just give up. In fact, most do. But I saw that I was a part of a small community of people who were being mistreated and sometimes abused who I could represent as one of them, stand up and say something about all of this. It had to be me, because many weren’t going to and sadly because of the severe nature of of some of these illnesses, a lot of them couldn’t. Some things I’ve seen besides the health of Kelly? I’ve been in institutions where we were barely bathed, fed worse than jail food, slept around like animals and were beaten and abused by thug nurses with low qualifications and treated us like and called us criminals. In one, they jumped a 60 year old man forcing him to the ground and leaving a pool of blood. I tried to call patient’s rights and was strapped down to my bed with leather restraints. I was eventually able to report it and that so called nurse was removed but I was stuck in there with all his coworkers. I went to court and was able to get out. In a room and board residential living we were barely able to laundry, hardly bathed and some residents left urine and feces all over the bed. Due to tough love type therapy, family members were discouraged from aiding or helping us out and were were basically left there to rot.
There was a bench where Kelly was murdered and a streetlamp covered with flowers and photos of him. I would sit on the bus stop nearby waiting for my ride thinking it had been 15 years since I knew him in that Hospital. We were being conserved, that is the state was taking control of me, my living arrangements, where I could physically go and what would happen to me if I had an episode. They won the case, I never met that state conservator who was controlling my life but talked to her on the phone twice in a year. Kelly was being put in the hands of his family to conserve him. Honestly, at the time he seemed no more than a troubled young man. What led up to his murder, seems blank. But I would sit there at that bus stop looking at his grave memorial thinking we had been in the same place at the same time going the same direction, did he really mess up that bad or am I just getting lucky?
The mental health system can be ugly, there’s treatment and there is abuse. It can be about moving forward or about giving up stuck. The solution as I see it lies in the whole population. Yes police reform to stop them killing us or any minority they hate, but that is a whole other problem society is already trying to tackle. The problem attacking those of us in the mental health community is ignorance. People just don’t know! When I tell people I’m bipolar or schizoaffective I”m thinking Silver Linings Playbook, they’re thinking Hannibal Lecter. The movies, the media and overall misunderstanding creates fear. Fear that kills people like Kelly. Science has also to be accepted. I don’t know how many faith healers I’ve run into from churches, twelve step groups and other self help groups. Even most devoutly religious can agree, if you pray about it, it doesn’t go away. Issues with the pharmaceutical companies aren’t helping, but we’re not taking oxycodone or Vicodin. We’re taking researched medicine to adjust brain imbalances that many of us were born with.
I think education is the answer and desperately needed. If the high schools, community colleges, maybe approach the churches and self help groups that still do a lot of good. No teacher wants more on their curriculum to have to deal with, but if we could understand what Johnny is doing or going through then maybe we can stop him before he hangs himself. That would be a life saved and invaluable.
So what am I doing now? I’ve been working a job at a local grocery store. I told my boss of my condition and he allows for time off so I can see my doctor, my therapist and adjust to meds when needed. He also limits my hours so I am still eligible for medical-medicare and disability benefits. I actively go to a mental health clInic for psychiatric treatment, therapy, groups like anger management and life skills and regular medical doctors and practices. I had a recent art show Beautiful Minds — 50 people who have suffered mental illness, current and from history. It was extremely profitable and successful. Because of the nature of the sales, it looks like I’ve started an emerging internet business. I live with a roommate renting my own room in her condo and it looks like I’ll be buying a car and driving again soon. It was hard, it was a maze to figure out, but I took the steps necessary to recover. Many can’t and many won’t recover, the system is just not rigged in our favor. I do feel like one of the lucky ones and yes, I believe more should and more could, but it can change when we change and taking the time to teach and lean about it is where we begin.
I will always be and artist, it’s what I’m good at and what I followed through. But as an artist, I will represent the importance of mental health. As such, I will always mention Kelly Thomas and the impact of his murder on my art. Somethings we cause and somethings we can prevent, but somethings should never have had to happen.