Work by Rhonda Johansen
Courtesy Photo

For many Santa Barbara artists living with mental illness, their favorite day has arrived. This day not only provides them the opportunity to showcase their artwork, whose creation can help ease symptoms, but it is also a chance to eliminate the stigma around mental health conditions, and — just maybe — pay for the artists’ supplies.

The Mental Health Association of Santa Barbara’s 18th Annual Mental Health Arts Festival kicks off on Saturday, October 1 at 11 a.m. Attendants can appreciate a plethora of art and craftwork in De la Guerra Plaza while engaging in public education about mental illness and providing artists valuable interaction.

“It’s kind of fun being out there where the public is and having people show interest in my art,” said Dion Cherot. “I’m just trying to get my stuff out there, and it’s fun getting feedback from people.”

Allen Schiller and his pieces
Courtesy Photo

Since 1990 the nation’s mental health advocates have used the first week of October to educate the public about severe mental health problems, like bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia. These advocates hope education will delete the social stigmas surrounding such conditions.

According to Mental Health Association board member Darcy Keep, those stigmas include thinking that mentally ill people are not like other people and that they will hurt others, which she notes leads to a lack of empathy and makes others less likely to get help if needed.

“One of the reasons we have this is to educate,” said artist Lesley Grogan. “The festival shows that we’re not maniacs or murderers. We’re just dealing with a tough illness.”

Patients and advocates agree art is an effective tool when dealing with mental health issues. “Many of the artists use art as a cathartic practice,” said Keep. “Some say ‘I do my best work when I’m depressed’ or ‘I do my best work when I’m angry,’ and others are just very talented.”

"Vincent" by Larry Pilkington
Courtesy Photo

The Mental Health Festival is even more helpful for artists because it gives participants something to look forward to as well as an ongoing therapeutic tool. “They feel like valuable members of society, and they get to interact with people in a normal way,” said Keep. “It’s the culmination of all the work they’ve done.”

Outside of advocacy, the event is an art festival, and the artists see it that way. “The festival gives me a chance to pay for my art supplies,” said Grogan. “I would like to sell as much as I can, but it’s tough to price things. It’s important to me that my art has a home to go to.”

This celebration of creativity also provides a sense of accomplishment for many who are misunderstood. “We are proud to host an event filled with self-expression and creation that provides people in our community living with mental illness a feeling of accomplishment and a means for healing,” said Mental Health director Annmarie Cameron in a statement.

The Mental Health Arts Festival is free and exhibits a vast medley of art from paintings and sculptures to music and poetry readings. Educational materials on mental illness, treatment options, and community resources will also be on hand.


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