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Amid COVID, mental health services and recovery are critical

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Dave Leon, the co-founder of the mental health nonprofit Painted Brain, is a licensed clinical social worker who is open about living with depression.

He thinks that as someone who has experience with mental illness, he brings humility to his work as a therapist.

“Someone who hasn’t struggled … and just enters into our field as a clinical professional might literally think they’re sane and everyone else is not,” he said. “And so they’re just trying to help everyone be more like them.”

Leon said that generally he’d rather change the environment around his patients than change his patients.

“What I’ve seen, especially with my own experience with depression — and with people with anxiety, people with personality disorders — is that a lot of it is a very realistic reaction to the crazy, insane contradictions that we’re expected to make to live in this world,” he said.

Studies have shown that the pandemic elevated adverse mental health conditions for many Americans. According to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation, about four in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, compared with one in 10 in early 2019. A study from the JAMA Network reports that one in four youth globally are experiencing clinically elevated depression symptoms.

The idea that having mental health struggles could be a logical response to trauma is easier for many to understand after a global pandemic. Leon said in some ways, peers — people with lived experience with mental illness and recovery — had an advantage when COVID-19 hit and everyone was suddenly isolated.

“They have to face something about themselves that is hard to face, hard to sit with and makes them an ‘other’ in some ways,” he said. “And having to go through that is transformative. It forces people to grow up and be more aware of what they need and who they are in the world.”

What can we learn from people who have experience managing difficult mental health challenges?

To explore this question, first, we learn about the peer-run organization Painted Brain and how their founders were able to find inspiration from their diagnoses. Then we dig deeper into peer support and the importance of creating community, especially among people struggling with mental health who often feel alone. Next, we get some advice about how to remain resilient in difficult circumstances. We then provide information and resources about patients’ rights, if you or a loved one is dealing with serious mental illness. And lastly, we ask artists from the Painted Brain community to tell us what inspired the work that appears in these articles.

Mental illness as a superpower

A comic called "Anti-Depressers Assimilate" with differerent superhero characters

The comic “Anti-Depressers Assimilate” is an Avengers parody by Lawrence Rozner, who was a member of the first art group that evolved into the peer-run mental health nonprofit Painted Brain.

(Lawrence Rozner)

There’s some hidden strength in every mental illness, Leon said. He and his Painted Brain co-founders, Rayshell Chambers and David “Eli” Israelian, lead a peer-run nonprofit that inspires people living with mental health challenges to empower themselves. Read the story >>

What is peer support?

Black and white sketch of a group of people sitting in chairs in a circle

Illustration by Amer Azad, one of the original members of the art group that evolved into the mental health nonprofit Painted Brain.

(Amer Azad)

Painted Brain started because Leon was looking for a place where his patients with severe mental illness, who usually feel like they don’t fit in anywhere, could find their people. Support from peers has historically been volunteer work, but it’s now being professionalized and valued as an integral part of recovery. Read the story >>

How to be resilient

Illustration of brain working on laptop and a nose dangling from a rope

A “Mission Impossible” parody of the Painted Brain comic characters, where the Brain is on his computer with a headset, while the Nose is hanging from a wire attempting to insert a USB drive into a computer port.

(Lawrence Rozner)

People who work in peer support have to build a strong foundation in order to be able to stay healthy while helping others overcome trauma. Here’s what everyone with stressful jobs can learn from their resiliency trainings. Read the story >>

Understanding patients’ rights

A black and white drawing of a bird sprinting on treadmill rollers in a cage

Lawrence Rozner came up with this illustration of a chicken running on a treadmill in one of the early Painted Brain art groups.

(Lawrence Rozner)

As a peer-run organization, Painted Brain advocates for patient autonomy and the right to determine one’s own mental healthcare treatment. Here’s the lowdown on how involuntary holds work, how to protect yourself and where to get that template to start your psychiatric advance directive. Read the story >>

Art by Painted Brain

Watercolor of a girl in nature beside an earthen boat lined with leafless trees, below blue and purple clouds

Cia Atkins, a group leader at the peer-run mental health nonprofit Painted Brain, used ink and watercolor to illustrate the uncertainty in our ecosystem; time spent and forgotten; and what’s next.

(Cia Atkins)

This selection of artwork by peers in the Painted Brain community includes the first Painted Brain logo and first magazine cover, as well as comic Lawrence Rozner explaining the inspiration behind his Anti-Depressers superhero characters. See the art >>

Suicide prevention and crisis counseling resources

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, seek help from a professional and call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Text “HOME” to 741741 in the U.S. and Canada to reach the Crisis Text Line.




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