In Susan Joyner’s painting “Darkest Before Dawn,” a city skyline looms, dark and ominous against a gloomy witching-hour sky. Electrical lines criss-cross against the outline of grey clouds. But beyond the darkened buildings and the vast night sky, there’s a glimpse of sunrise: a sliver of hope. Change is imminent.
“Darkest Before Dawn” is one of many artworks on display on the first floor of the Cleveland Justice Center throughout May as part of a special exhibit that seeks to dispel myths about mental health conditions in Cuyahoga County and beyond. The exhibit is also aimed at raising public awareness about the intersections between mental health, developmental disabilities, and the likelihood of incarceration.
Joyner’s painting is accompanied by over a dozen other 2-D and 3-D works, including glittering fans and a silver sparkling mask designed by Lady Blu, an abstract take on the American flag by David Pescosolido, and an idyllic rural winter scene painted by Kali, with a bright red barn as its pastoral centerpiece.
The artists in this exhibit are primarily developmentally disabled and/or mentally ill clients at Recovery Resources, an emotional and behavioral health agency that serves the needs of Cleveland-based individuals with mental health disabilities and addictions. Recovery Resources is co-sponsoring the exhibit alongside the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month.
Via the art exhibit, Recovery Resources seeks to draw public attention to the stigma and silencing faced by the millions of Americans affected by mental health conditions and addictions—whether individually or through the experiences of a family member, friend, spouse, or child. Recovery Resources President and CEO Pamela Gill hopes that, by highlighting the talents of individuals directly affected by mental health disabilities, the exhibit can help spark a dialogue about this widespread public health issue that affects 1 in 4 of today’s Americans.
“All of us, in one way or another,” says Gill, “whether it’s personally or whether it’s friends, loved ones, family, coworkers, strangers we encounter on a daily basis—everyone in one way or another has been impacted by mental health.”
Gill says that the purpose of the art exhibit is not only to educate people who stigmatize mental health conditions and cognitive disabilities, but also to highlight the complexity of the overlap between mental health and the likelihood of incarceration. About a fifth percent of inmates in state prisons have a history of mental health conditions; in women’s prisons, that number is even higher, with psychiatrically disabled women constituting over two-thirds of the incarcerated population.
“We want to let people know that mental health concerns affect everyone from every walk of life, of all ages, and a large segment of our population,” Gill explains. “We also know that through the halls of justice walk a lot of individuals with mental health concerns, and as a community we need to address that.”
In Cleveland, the Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Court—a certified docket established in 2003 in response to the growing number of severely mentally ill and/or cognitively disabled individuals entering the criminal justice system—has sought to address this complex issue. The court is populated by five judges who have shown a consistent affinity and expertise for dealing with mental health in the context of criminal justice. Together they've developed highly specialized services for offenders with mental health conditions and developmental disabilities, such as high-level treatment and alternative paths to restorative justice.
“Fortunately,” says Gill, “we know that in Cuyahoga County, our amazing judges have been very committed to making sure that everyone knows that individuals with mental illness, when they come into the justice system, might need treatment, not judgment.”
Gill believes that continued collaboration between the community, medical providers, court officials, and law enforcement "can achieve the outcomes that both protect people and support the disability-related needs of the individuals at the same time.”
Those outcomes can only come from dispelling misinformation and chipping away at the silence around disabilities and mental health. And art, Gill says, is the perfect medium to open up that difficult conversation. “When people are hurting or in pain,” she asserts, “having a positive creative expressive outlet is very helpful. More than anything, we want to showcase the talents of these individuals, what they have to offer the community.”
The Mental Health Awareness Month art exhibit will be on display until May 31st on the first floor of the Justice Center. The exhibit is open to the public and free of charge. Select artworks in the exhibit are for sale. More details here.