This Artist Residency in a Hospital Is Helping Combat Mental Health Stigma

According to a recent report from the World Health Organization, depression is now the most prevalent illness worldwide, affecting more people than either cancer or heart disease. What’s more, one in four people will face psychiatric illness at least once in their life. Despite the ubiquity of mental illness, however, “it’s not surrounded by the same kind of acceptance and solidarity as other widespread diseases like cancer are,” Kuypers explains over Skype, sitting next to Tuinebreijer in their Amsterdam home.

“Mental health patients are often discriminated against, and excluded from society,” Tuinebreijer adds. “We believe artists have the ability, through their work, to communicate the difficulties that patients face in a different, more positive light.”

Tuinebreijer’s interest in the intersection of art and mental health goes back many years, to when he was a child dreaming about a future as either a psychiatrist or an artist. “I decided to become a psychiatrist because it pays the bills,” he chuckles. But his interest in art never waned, and he baked it into his psychiatric practice. “As Fleur says, one image can say more than 1,000 words,” he notes. “Sometimes I send patients to an exhibition or give them a DVD, because the therapy is not reaching them in the way that art can.”

It wasn’t until some 20 years ago, however, that he became involved with what is believed to be the world’s first art residency program within a psychiatric hospital. Called Fifth Season, it was introduced at the Altrecht Mental Health Institute, a clinic located in the region of Utrecht in the Netherlands in 1998.

Three years ago, Tuinebreijer and Kuypers took it upon themselves to expand the concept internationally after Tuinebreijer gave a lecture at Kings County. The visit jump-started a conversation with Dr. Joseph Merlino, formerly Director of Psychiatry and Deputy Executive Director at the hospital, about setting up a similar residency program there. While Merlino was supportive (“he is also very interested in the arts and psychiatry, and the emancipation of patients,” says Tuinebreijer), the hospital’s board of directors wasn’t so easily convinced.

“It was very difficult to convince them that the project was interesting, positive, and not risky for the hospital,” Tuinebreijer explains. Among the board’s initial concerns were that the program could disrupt daily procedures, breach rules around patient privacy, and damage…

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