Our Eagle's Nest Recovery Mural is the right way to celebrate National Mental Health Month.
Something truly remarkable has been going on recently at our Eagle’s Nest Clubhouse in Buena Vista: a collaborative mural project expressing themes of recovery from mental illness. People who would otherwise not know each other are forging human connections while creating a joyful, beautiful, and lasting public work of art. It’s completely fitting that May is National Mental Health Month, and that the mural’s imagery represents the journey toward wellness rather than the experience of mental illness.
Eagle’s Nest is a program of Rockbridge Area Community Services (RACS) that empowers people living with severe mental illness to work toward and maintain wellness while building the skills they need to thrive within their community. Involved in the project are about 25 clubhouse members and staff, three faculty members from nearby Washington & Lee University, and 25 students participating as part of a psychology or art class. In the course of about 15 afternoons together, working in small groups and larger gatherings depending on the day, the group conceived and painted a 32- by 8–foot mural.
photo credit Larry Stene
Nearly one in 25 American adults — about 10 million individuals — live with a serious mental illness. And about 60% of them do not receive mental health services in a given year. One reason people don’t seek treatment is stigma. And even for those who seek treatment, stigma can undercut its effectiveness by discouraging people from participating in their communities.
For most, severe mental illness is not a permanent black hole that swallows up people forever. I work every day with people who inspire me profoundly as they strive to be happy and productive despite setbacks, frustrations, and dashed dreams. They choose to define themselves not by their difficulties but by their will to build better lives for themselves.
The evidence-based clubhouse model of psychiatric rehabilitation we have used at Eagle’s Nest since 1983 offers people with mental illness the daily opportunity to regain self-respect and relearn skills. We encourage members to take responsible roles both in the clubhouse—for instance cooking lunch, tending our flower gardens, answering phones, teaching computer skills—and in the community at large. Every person has something to offer, so participants share their talents and participate in each other’s recovery. Working alongside and engaging with others with similar lived experience can be powerfully restorative, increasing self-esteem and dignity.
For 35 years, we at Eagle’s Nest/RACS have worked to change negative perceptions of people living with mental illness and to reduce the stigma associated with those perceptions. Now our neighbors and Buena Vista city leaders are among our biggest cheerleaders, and long-standing partnerships with W&L faculty have led to productive student internships at Eagle’s Nest and classroom visits from staff as well as members.
The recovery mural project takes this effort to a whole new level with the promise of a much-expanded circle of influence. Getting to know our club members as the admirable, interesting, worthwhile people they are undercuts societal prejudice and stigma. The student participants will take this understanding with them as they become teachers, artists, doctors, lawmakers, community leaders, and citizens of every stripe, throughout the country and around the world.
This spring as students and club members worked on the mural, shared stories, and enjoyed more than a few laughs together, one thing became very clear to me. They love this. They love being together, love learning something new with and from each other, love tossing ideas around and love the creative act.
The mural is a compelling testament to the possibility and importance of recovery, giving voice to people whose story has all too often been ignored. And it will be a testament, also, to a very human truth: No matter who you are, it is downright fun to work within a congenial group to create something the world will admire—a vibrantly colorful, visually dynamic, powerfully authentic communal work of art. Please come see it, and us, when you’re in the area.
Phil Floyd is RACS manager of psychiatric rehabilitation services and past chair of the United States Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association (2006-2008).
The article above has been published in the June 2018 issue of The Rockbridge Advocate and in the newsletter of the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association; it also incorporates language from Phil Floyd's op-ed published in the Roanoke Times on May 25, 2018.