Empathy. Noun: the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings
A note on language: People vary in terms of their preference for terminology, using terms like psychiatric disability or person-in-recovery. For clarity in communication, the term “mental illness” is used in this article.
“I’m overcome by a feeling a dread and fear and the sense that I cannot possibly survive the next five minutes—how can I possibly go on? I become incredibly suicidal and full of self-loathing, and [full of] all of the failures and all of the negative things, and all of the things I’m scared of, and everything that’s wrong, and everything I can’t tolerate … That’s what I’m living with. And it’s hell.”
Nomi Kaim is describing what it feels like to have a form of bipolar disorder saturated with bouts of severe depression. The 29-year-old volunteer at the Aspergers Clinic in Watertown copes with this every day.
“I just didn’t realize a person could survive this kind of experience, and yet I have.”
This is what Nomi meant when she wrote, “I have been to hell,” below a photo of a detour sign for her final art project of the PhotoVoice class, a course she took over this summer at the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University.
The “Mental Wellness” class—the second semester of this narrative-oriented therapy model developed by Nomi’s teacher, Lauren Mizock—is made up of eight students with various forms of mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and severe depression. But unlike the traditional patient/doctor model of mental rehabilitation, BU’s Rehab Center offers all kinds of classes focused on “mental wellness,” ranging from photography to yoga, writing, healthy eating, songwriting, acting—even tai chi.
The PhotoVoice class that Nomi took focuses on storytelling within a community of people who all live with mental illness—stories that are healing and inspiring for their recovery processes.
“Some people don’t feel comfortable with [the term] ‘mental illness’ because that [focuses on] a disease model,” Mizock says. “What we focus on is the importance of recovery. You’re working toward building a satisfying and meaningful life.”
“When we talk to doctors and other providers, they haven’t experienced it themselves,”
Nomi explains. “[Being treated in a psychiatric hospital] often can be harmful because some of the staff really don’t understand … they were in a position of power and I had no power.”
She continues, “[PhotoVoice] was really the first time in my life I have talked to people who have also been patients in hospitals. It’s one thing to talk to professionals about that, but it’s another thing to talk to people who were patients who had similar experiences. It’s incredibly validating.”
20 projects by students who have been part of the class are going to be exhibited at Bloc11 September 28, a part of Mizock’s curriculum called “Photovoice Intervention.” The point is to take the students’ messages and stories from within the Center and tell them to the public to raise community awareness and eliminate stigmas.
“People have treated me as if I’m really stupid and don’t have any self-awareness, and that’s not true,” Kaim says.
When Kaim was 16, one of her high school teachers also didn’t understand her depression. That’s why she took the photo of the detour sign. “[My teacher] said ‘This is just a small detour in the straight path of your life,’ and it absolutely wasn’t true … she had no idea how bad it was. It was just so big, and it wasn’t going away, and it was huge.”
At the exhibit, two students from the class will also give speeches explaining their mental experiences and what they want the community to get out of their art, their narrative, and their message.
“If you haven’t lived it or a loved one hasn’t lived it, you have no idea how it takes over your life and how incredibly painful it is,” says Kaim.
“I would love for [people] to get some sense of what this is and of who we are, and that we’re just people. We’re just people suffering like everyone else.”
PHOTOVOICE EXHIBIT OPENING
BLOC 11 CAFE
11 BOW ST.