Health Team

UNC mental illness patients define themselves through art

Posted August 10, 2011

— People with serious mental illness fight social stigma in addition to the disease. For those who are diagnosed, medication and therapy can help them live more normal lives. Some find effective therapy through self expression.

Ever since he can remember, Grayson Bowen wanted to be an artist.

“The whole reason I got into art was, you know, to express myself,” he said.

By age 14, expressing himself was complicated by hallucinations and mood problems that led to hospitalization and treatment.

“I have a challenge – a schizo-affective disorder – so I try not to let that define me as a person,” he said.

University of North Carolina School of Medicine psychiatrist Dr. John Gilmore says art is one area in which people with mental disorders can explore their potential.

That's the idea behind a gallery called Brushes with Life, which is displayed in the same halls where patients come for help with their illness. The artists price their own work. If sold, they get 100 percent of the money.

The gallery, which began in 2001, is permanent, with new works constantly rotating in. Some of the pieces are displayed in the main lobby of the UNC neurosciences hospital.

“People realize that they are not their illness. They're still people with lots of potential,” Gilmore said. “Medicine can only help people to a certain point, and there's a lot more that has to happen.”

Gilmore says studies show art is an effective therapy for psychiatric illnesses. He has seen it make a big difference in his patients' lives, especially when the work is displayed.

“I think displaying art is a really wonderful thing,” Bowen said. “It really generates a positive feeling.”

Bowen says medication, therapy and his love for painting helped him earn a master of fine arts degree.

“Taking on the identity of an artist is much more valuable than taking on the identity of a mentally ill person,” he said.

Bowman credits his family for strong loving support. When he's not working in the studio, he works as a peer support specialist in Durham to help others dealing with mental illness.


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  • bigpinkstork Aug 11, 2011

    Why are you bothered by the sentence? It isn't meant to be amusing--it's a simple statement of an unfortunate fact. Read the comments on other posts--the stigma against the mentally ill is alive and well, however misguided it is. The stigma itself is the problem, not the author's recognition of it. You can bury your head in the sand all you want; it won't help anyone. If you want to end the stigma against the mentally ill, then help fight to change policies (including insurance rules, background checks that keep people with certain histories out of jobs, etc.) Perhaps you're fighting that fight already. But trying to do so by denying the existence of the problem is an odd approach.

  • khmaio Aug 11, 2011

    I am considerably bothered by the opening sentence in this article, from a doctor:

    People with serious mental illness fight social stigma in addition to the disease.

    It is wholly un-amusing.

    1. Most of us are unrecognizable as "people with -a- serious mental illness," we are simply successful people.

    Bigots assign, confirm, validate "stigmas," informed people do not.

    "Mental illness" is plural, not singular, though public caricature portrays it as an "it, "the" disease.

    Harold A. Maio, retired Mental Health Editor