“Lens, Pens, Brushes & Friends” at St. Elizabeths Hospital
Reflections by Founder Edward Washington, LCSW
Often, persons deemed “not guilty by reason of insanity” are perceived by lay people and mental health professionals alike as dangerous psychopaths, similar to those depicted in the movie Silence of the Lambs. All too often these patients, who may already be struggling with doubts and insecurities related to their successful reentry into the community, begin to mirror society’s perception of them. Some have acknowledged they would prefer to remain behind the protective walls of the hospital rather than face the stigmatization that they may endure upon returning to the community. The Department of Mental Health has responded to these issues by providing a wide variety of treatment interventions and supportive services. The Lens, Pens, Brushes & Friends program was conceived as an adjunct to these services and has demonstrated early success in providing an environment that contributes to patients’ self-esteem and their ability to interact productively with members of the community at large.
At the outset, the project was a rather serendipitous attempt to engage patients and volunteers in areas of shared interest. The anticipated outcomes were: (1) Patients would develop a level of comfort with volunteers based on their shared interest in an activity; (2) Volunteers would be able to see beyond the patient’s past history and share this insight with others; and (3) Patients would develop improved confidence in their to interact productively with members of the community.
The arts have proven to be an effective vehicle for meeting these expectations. Through poetry, photography, and painting, participants have shared a capacity and talent for the expression of an inner vision that explores hopes, dreams, doubts, and the complexities of life. In smaller but not lesser ways, the efficacy of the project might be measured through such vignettes as: (1) An easily overlooked, quiet individual on the ward shares a poem he wrote with a staff member, who posts it on the wall of the dayroom. While the patient’s poetry may not be exceptional, the true benefit comes from the praise received from both staff and other patients for his efforts and unique insights and (2) An individual who has been estranged from his family takes a self-portrait and sends it to his mother, who hangs it on the wall where she keeps dozens of pictures of her children and grandchildren. He now feels accepted again by the family.
Some people have been hospitalized over a number of years for various reasons. Their creation of art offers a fruitful, constructive, and meaningful life with purpose while living in an institution. Under any circumstances, the project has allowed people to dream and experience the beauty that daring dreams might offer…