It might not be an art gallery by name, but it has the same spirit. Nearly every wall of the UNM Mental Health Center is adorned with colorful paintings and portraits—all finely framed and signed by the artists. Each piece has its own unique story of how it came to be on these walls. Some were donated by past and present patients. Some were commissioned. One has been hanging on the back wall for as long as anyone can remember. A particularly striking impressionistic rendering of Vincent van Gogh standing under an umbrella brightens a dark hall on the second floor—a portrait of a man with whom many artists in the mental health community identify.
With the state of behavioral and mental health care as it is today (see this week's cover story), a number of treatment options have been cut for both inpatient and outpatient care at the UNM Mental Health Center. Art therapy is one of them. There aren't any art therapists on staff, and any art done is considered an activity, not therapy. Certified recreation therapist Andrea Johnston and inpatient case manager Jenna Viscaya both work for a program within the hospital system called Arts in Medicine. The program provides arts education and opportunities to patients, but no guided art therapy, even though both Johnston and Viscaya have the training and experience to lead such groups.
Johnston says that arts therapy used to be part of the model for treatment and recovery, but it is being phased out by the medical community. "People can have therapeutic experiences, but, technically, it's not therapy" based on the current model, she says. She and Viscaya agree that the process of making art is therapeutic for everyone, not just those with a diagnosed mental illness.
Outside of the “peer bridger” office, a black-and-red outline of a woman's face stares out the window. Pat Loyd says he painted her image after meeting a woman in a support group. He says he felt frustrated because he could do nothing to help other than offer her a willing ear. As a peer bridger, Loyd works with others who have or have had a mental-health diagnosis to support and mentor those receiving inpatient and outpatient care at UNM. Art is just one activity in his bag of extra hobbies that helps him express things that don't always come out in words. "Painting was something my father watched me do," he says. "I've been stable about three-plus years. It's a combination of things. It's having hobbies; it's going out and cultivating supports in the community," he says. ArtStreet and OFFCenter Community Arts Studio are two organizations Loyd mentioned that help generate those supports.
ArtStreet is a program of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, but the service they provide is for anyone who wants to make art. They hold open studio hours on Thursdays and Fridays, as well as art therapy sessions for clients. Brenda Bunker, the ArtStreet program coordinator, says it is not a requirement for art makers to be receiving services, but help is there if needed.
Kristin Leve says she uses ArtStreet as a form of self therapy. When she sold her first piece during a show hosted by ArtStreet, she says she felt empowered. "I was so amazed that someone would want to buy something I made," she says.
OFFCenter was created nearly five years ago by Janis Timm-Bottos. Timm-Bottos got her art therapy degree from UNM and started the ArtStreet program in 1994. She created OFFCenter to offer a community-based art space and take the ArtStreet model to the next step. "We want to allow people a safe place where they can direct their own care—healed or not," she says.
Their doors are open Tuesday through Friday to anyone who wants to come make art, work on a crossword puzzle or have a conversation. On top of stacks of art supplies, the space hosts art shows and a gallery shop where artisans can sell their wares.
"Every neighborhood needs an OFFCenter," Timm-Bottos says. "Then maybe we wouldn't need so much mental health care."