Fostering Recovery and Reducing Stigma

During the 2020-21 academic year, Mount St. Joseph University (MSJU) PA students Vanessa Godines and Laila Al-Khasawneh led the project Closing the Gap through Art.

As part of their PA studies, Vanessa and Laila learned about the reduced life expectancy and increased incidence of chronic disease associated with severe mental disorders.  They also learned that art therapy can foster recovery through structure and achievement as well as cultivating social inclusion and acceptance.

These findings and their passion for reducing mental health disparities led them to design this project, which used a holistic approach to promote mental health recovery through therapeutic art for participants and to foster community awareness on mental and behavioral health disparities.

They partnered with the Recovery Center of Hamilton County (RCHC), a peer-run non-profit organization dedicated to serving and empowering individuals affected by mental illness.  In their reflections, therapeutic art project participants said the project not only stimulated creativity but also allowed them to tell their story, to heal, and to work on self-discovery.

Chris Pedoto, RHCH’s Director, highlighted that the project helped participants to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, reduce their anxiety, and improve their self-esteem.  Fifty-one art pieces were created.

In March, the artwork was displayed at the Mount St. Joseph University San Giuseppe Gallery.  In keeping with COVID safety protocols and to expand the project’s reach, a virtual display, which included participants’ reflections, was also created.  Two virtual presentations of the art show were shared via social media and the MSJU PA Program website, which garnered more than 1,000 views.  The art show helped educate the community about mental health and the challenges those in recovery face, while reducing the stigma around mental illness.

Thirty-four PA students participated in the project presentation and planning process.  They assisted in promotions, gathering mental health resource information, and art sales.  In addition, this project engaged undergraduate students in cognition and memory, psychology, and sociology courses, primarily to supplement lectures addressing prejudice and discrimination towards the mental health community and to equip future providers to better serve these patients.

Vanessa reflected on the project:  “By working closely and hearing the stories of individuals who were affected by a mental health diagnosis, I developed a deeper understanding of the challenges this population faces in the community due to social stigma and lack of awareness. As a Physician Assistant student, I became aware of the likelihood of these patients’ reduced life expectancies and higher prevalence of developing chronic diseases. This project provided the opportunity to spread exposure to the social issues that this community faces and the important roles that future and current professionals hold in their recovery process.”

Given the project’s success, plans are in place to continue mental health outreach as part of the Clinical Approach to Behavioral Health course in the MSJU PA Program.  Learn more about their efforts at Closing the Gap through Art.

This project was supported by the nccPA Health Foundation’s Mental Health Outreach Grant.

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