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Hudson exhibit a successful fruition of therapy, art

By Tresca Weinstein, Times Union, Nov. 18, 2020

Fifteen years ago, when Brian Belt was diagnosed with schizophrenia and substance abuse disorder, his mother reached out to the Columbia County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMICC) for support. The community and resources she found there gave her strength as she and her son navigated a long, hard road.

“During the worst phase of my life, the NAMI Family Support Group helped her get through all the chaos I was bringing into her life,” Belt recalled in a recent interview.

Today, Belt’s journey of recovery has brought him full circle. A certified peer specialist, he teaches mental health education classes and facilitates support groups—and he’s partnering with NAMICC to bring to life his vision of a Mental Health Awareness and Creative Arts Gallery in Hudson.

“It was mutual aha moment that this could be a way to combine our forces and bring awareness of mental health issues, by creating an aesthetically beautiful environment and sharing a message that relays hope to the community and to everyone who’s going through rough times,” said Belt, who makes art using digital technology.

Since 2018, Belt has spearheaded four exhibitions at Camphill Solaris on Warren Street in Hudson, featuring the work of individuals in recovery from mental health conditions. His goal is to establish a permanent home in the city for the gallery, a dream that can be realized with the support of donors. For now, art is being displayed online on NAMICC’s website and the gallery’s Facebook page.

The artists share not only their creative work — including paintings, sculpture, collage, photography and metalwork as well as poetry and music—but also personal stories. “I finally know who I am, and I have Art to thank for unlocking what I thought was lost,” Jessica Banx, who been hospitalized and spent time in jail as a result of her mental health issues, writes in the artist’s statement accompanying her vibrant abstract paintings. “It’s incredible to feel joy again.”

Art-making “can become a powerful tool for recovery, and also a powerful tool for reversing the stigma around mental health,” said Lisa Childers, a co-occurring disorder counselor for the Mental Health Association of Columbia-Greene Counties, who brings a background in fine art and art therapy to her role as the gallery’s art coordinator. “People can exhibit their struggles through beauty, and it’s accepted.”

NAMICC’s fiscal sponsorship of the gallery has opened up new funding streams and brought more artists into the fold, Childers says. The chapter offers educational sessions on mental health topics; peer-led Family Support Groups (currently offered via Zoom); and the Family-to-Family program, a series of weekly classes covering all aspects of mental healthcare, from new research to coping skills.

When Nicole Corey, president of the chapter’s board, and Heather Lloyd, past president and current board member, describe these programs as “life changing,” they’re speaking from experience.

“As the caregiver of a loved one with mental health issues, I was in an acute moment of desperation, feeling so alone and having absolutely no idea where to go for help, and I was referred to a NAMI group by a therapist,” Lloyd recalled. “I’m not aware of any other agency that fills this particular role of caring for the caregivers.”

Established by Marge Robinson in 1990, the chapter is an affiliate of the national grass-roots organization, whose mission is to help build better lives for those affected by mental illness through support, education and advocacy. All programs are free and open to the public. With about 30 members who pay annual fees ranging from $5 to $40, NAMICC relies on grants and donations, including sustaining contributions over the years from the Evelyn Bordewick Foundation. A COVID-related grant from the Berkshire Taconic Foundation supported a recent website and social media upgrade, and the chapter has also been awarded state funds through the Office of Mental Health.

Additional funding would help the board to bring NAMI’s In Our Voice program—in which high school graduates share their stories of recovery —to Columbia County’s schools, and launch a program designed for veterans struggling with mental health issues. Expanded outreach—through local mental healthcare providers, schools, law enforcement, hospitals and houses of worship—is also needed.

“That’s where NAMI comes in,” Corey said. “When they leave the class or the group, they feel so much better able to cope, and they have new knowledge and information.”

With the creation of the gallery, they also have the opportunity to express themselves and to be recognized.

“A lot of people with mental health conditions struggle with feeling like they matter,” Belt said. “When they’re in these shows, they feel valued as human beings. It’s a huge step to let that sink in, even for a moment. A permanent gallery space would embolden all of us to feel like we’re valued and gifted people.”

Get Connected, namiccny.org or 518-336-0246.

Tresca Weinstein writes about dance, visual art, and culture for the Times Union. She also writes, edits, and manages content for national corporations and organizations, with a focus on the arts, yoga, health and wellness, and positive psychology. Her favorite part of her job is talking to people who are passionate about making the world a better and more awe-inspiring place, whether that means creating beautiful things, researching the science of happiness, or doing eight pirouettes in a row.

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