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Art Program Helps Mentally Ill Find Some Comfort, Support

EVANSTON, Ill. (CBS) -- They're some of the most desperate moments in life: the isolation of depression, the agony of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Millions of Americans are living with serious mental illness. But some talented people are finding joy with a canvas and brush.

Karen, who has bipolar disorder, has heard voices since she was five. She says her paintings are a way of thanking her family for helping and understanding her.

"When I had episodes, I was mean to my family," she says. "I want them to know I love them."

Karen and other budding artists are clients of the New Foundation Center in Northfield. Once a month, their art therapist, Gail Fried, takes them to Open Studio in Evanston to draw and paint.

Freed created the art program. She instructs students and creates art with them.

Art takes them from darkness to light, from chaos to calm.

"The great thing about art is it really accesses our heart and our gut. There's wisdom there. We say 'I knew in my heart, I just was sure in my gut,'" Karla Rindal of Open Studio says.

How does art free a brain that is hurting? Is there something in the creation that reacts with colors and process and form and texture?

"Art has a stimulating effect on the brain. It helps the individual to think better," says Dr. Uzma Yunis of New Foundation Center. "It causes relief of endorphins in the brain, which are essentially happy hormones. It helps them have a sense of joy and accomplishment."

Peter struggles with bipolar disorder and breaks from reality. He's one of the artists featured in this recent exhibit by The Awakenings Project, a group that encourages people with mental illness to express themselves through art and writing.

"It's given me a chance to succeed at something," Peter says.

Back at Open Studio, the walls are full of color and confidence.

"There's quite a bit inside that needs to come out. I have a lot to say," one participant says. "I feel accomplished, happy."

More On The Awakenings Project

The Awakenings Project helps people with mental illness express themselves creatively. The group's founder, Robert Lundin,  and co-founder, Irene O'Neill, answer questions about how the project brings the arts to people with mental illness.

1) What are some of the programs you offer?

We began with the visual arts, but Robert Lundin had a vision to expand the offerings, first by creating the now internationally acclaimed journal, The Awakenings Review. Then he envisioned Awakenings Music and Drama, and we began nurturing and encouraging artists who were interested in those areas. The literary arm also holds poetry readings and/or slams in different venues. This year Robert organized the first National Poetry Slam at the NAMI Convention. The visual artists, besides holding exhibitions at galleries, colleges and other venues, also take art materials to nursing homes and mental health centers to create art projects with people there.

2) How did the awakenings project come to be?

Lundin had read Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, and had several friends and colleagues with obvious artistic talent who were diagnosed with mental illnesses. He began contacting people to see who would help organize the show, and put out a prospectus to find artists to participate. The Awakenings Art Show might uncover talented artists who were otherwise neglected by the art world and inspire some "consumers" to take their rightful place in society as productive creators, helping to raise the ambitions and self-worth of the artists, as well as providing education to people who viewed the show.

 3) Who is eligible to be part of the program?

Anyone and everyone who is interested in developing their artistic talents, has been diagnosed or self-identifies as having a mental illness and is not afraid to be open about it. Through the generosity of artist Trish Evers, we opened a "Working Studio" in Glen Ellyn, which moved to Elgin in 2008, and serves artists with mental illnesses as both a studio and a gallery. It is used for writing groups, is equipped with art supplies, and encourages interaction and camaraderie. The public is welcome. We've even had Second City come out to our new location and do an improv workshop with us.

4) How can they participate?

The Awakenings Review generally contains fiction, poetry, art and essays by persons living with mental illnesses, their family members, friends or professionals.  People can submit their writings by following the guidelines at We get submissions from people across the country and around the world. They are then reviewed by a board of reviewers. Participation at the studio is generally limited geographically to people within the Chicagoland area, is easily reachable by train, car, bicycle along the Prairie Path, or within Elgin, there are buses. Our fine art exhibits attract artists from all over the state of Illinois, and occasionally we've had exhibits in Indiana.

5) Tell us about your success.

We have had so many successes in our nearly 15 years, that it's difficult to name them all. Awakenings won the "Outstanding Contribution to Recovery by a Non-Profit Organization" award from the Irwin Foundation at Celebration Recovery in 2006. We also won a "Stigma Busters" award from Ecker Center of Elgin in 2010. Last year, we celebrated the 10-year anniversary of The Awakenings Review, with a gala at the Lake Ellyn Boathouse. Spring, 2012 will mark the 15th anniversary of our very first "Awakenings Art Show" and the birth of the whole project. We are planning a huge celebration and everyone is invited.

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