Becca Atkins on Artreach Inc. and Shedding Diagnostic Labels
On the future of mental health
Posted Apr 26, 2016
The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.
Interview with Becca Atkins
EM: Can you tell us a little bit about the work you do?
BA: I work at Artreach, Inc., a non-profit mental health and arts agency based in Norwich, CT. Our vision is of a world where a psychiatric diagnosis is not a limiting factor for participating in life. We bring meaning and joy to people’s lives through creativity and human connection.
Artreach started in 1985 as The Second Step Players, a mental health sketch comedy theater troupe. In 2010, we expanded to include Comic Alchemy, a stand up comedy team trained by David Granirer, founder of Stand Up For Mental Health. The actors, who have psychiatric diagnoses, write and perform comedy designed to change negative perceptions about people who have mental illnesses.
Artreach also offers a walking club; a music program and jazz group; and classes in playwriting, poetry and visual arts taught by local artists. We operate as a community of practice. The group creates their experience together, with a focus on creativity, fun and non-judgment of self and others.
EM: How do you help the folks you serve “leave their diagnosis at the door?”
BA: When we first meet a new member, we describe Artreach’s culture as an oasis where people can take a break from their symptoms. The suggestion, coupled with the supportive environment and positive role modeling of seasoned members, creates an opening for this to happen.
We ask everyone to leave their diagnosis at the door and simply participate in the rehearsal or class. Daily drama is also left at the door, so people can practice stepping outside of the story. Kindness and treating each other with respect help establish the container for creating. In this environment, people feel supported to expand and try new things.
We’re not asking people to pretend to be happy when they’re not, but to notice how they feel, and participate as they can on that day. Most often, something will shift for the better by the end of the rehearsal or class. This is a hopeful reminder that it’s worth it to engage even when you don’t feel great. It’s powerful to recognize that participating in something you care about has changed this feeling before, and can change it again.
EM: Do you have the sense that the arts are particularly healing for someone in mental distress? Your thoughts on that?
BA: The short answer is YES. The arts are great for building self-esteem, practicing teamwork, self-expression, and more. Having something to work on that matters to you provides structure to your day and gives a sense of meaning. At Artreach, we focus on using the arts to heal on three levels: personally, interpersonally and in the community, by shifting perspectives through performances.
There are some particular benefits of performing theater and music. Humans want to belong. When people experience psychiatric symptoms, they may sense themselves as flawed, as “other.” Working on a common goal like a performance, everyone has a stake in bringing the project to life. Each person shares responsibility for the end result, and can see the value of their participation.
Another benefit of performing is learning to feel fear, yet not letting it stop you. One way to do this is to recognize and make use of the support that is available. Many people are surrounded by support but are unaccustomed to noticing that. Practicing recognizing and making use of the support, whether internally or from another person, it is a skill that can be generalized to everyday life.
EM: What are your thoughts on the current, dominant paradigm of diagnosing and treating mental disorders and the use of so-called psychiatric medication to treat mental disorders?
BA: I can tell you where I stand today, and that my opinion will continue to change as science reveals new answers. Today, I see it as a complex paradigm that has serious limitations. If you view a diagnosis as something real and concrete, you have an incomplete picture. We humans are a complex lot, and no description of a set of symptoms can encapsulate everything that drives emotional distress.
Recovery from mental distress can and does happen, given the right supports for the situation. It takes work, though, and can be hard. I don’t believe medication alone is enough, and it can sometimes makes things worse. I feel each person should find whatever helps, and do that. There are ways to learn coping skills to manage or eliminate distressing symptoms. It’s a matter of finding the right kind of therapy, support group, nutrition, exercise regimen, and/or medication. What works is unique to each individual.
EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?
BA: I would first look at current life circumstances. Causes like physical illness, poor nutrition, and poverty often get overlooked. Any of these can create distress, and can be difficult to change without intervention.
A good therapist or other professional skilled in treating the type of symptoms they are experiencing can help. The right fit is unique to each person and situation. Other things to try are mindfulness meditation and support groups. Medication can sometimes help, alongside other supports.
I’d like to mention something less common that helped me personally with depression and anxiety. My symptoms changed dramatically after I took a full impact self-defense course. It enabled me to embody a sense of safety and personal power in a visceral way. Working outside of class with a therapist helped metabolize the experience.
I would be remiss if I didn’t add that a daily creative practice can be wonderfully healing. In the arts world, there are options for solitary learning and practice, for connecting with others in a community of practice, and for sharing your work through performances or art shows. I’ve seen theater, music, and writing reduce mental distress and improve people’s lives in some amazing ways.
Rebecca Atkins is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Creativity Coach and Executive Director of Artreach, Inc. She enjoys singing, songwriting and playing bass, and has written and performed sketch and stand up comedy about mental health issues since 1993. Becca is passionate about helping humans connect with themselves and with others through the arts.
Other links to check out:
Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at email@example.com, visit him at http://www.ericmaisel.com, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at http://www.thefutureofmentalhealth.com
To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health visit here
To see the complete roster of 100 interview guests, please visit here: