Erasing the Stigma of Mental Health

Community and academic partnerships build bridges between disciplines.

Mental Health

Raising awareness of the importance of mental health and the potential occupational implications of a mental illness is central to my identity as an academician.

Those living with a mental illness represent an extremely diverse population — diverse in terms of their strengths, challenges and subsequent need for support and intervention. Advocating where, when and how those efforts are needed is an occupation as important to me as teaching.

To this end, I often seek opportunities to advocate in many settings and contexts with a variety of populations both in and out of healthcare.

History of 9Muses

9Muses is a program of the Mental Health Association of Southeast Florida. It is designed to provide mental health support and recovery through the creative arts.

The history of 9Muses dates back to 1994, when it was known as Hot Sketch Studios, created subsequent to a need for diversity in community programming options for those discharged from the nearby state psychiatric hospital.

Since then, the name has changed, the services have greatly expanded and the number of people supported by and empowered through these services has grown exponentially.

Aside from a full art studio where anyone in the community is welcome to let their creative spirit wander through such media as painting, poetry, jewelry making, creative writing and dance, 9Muses also offers peer mentoring, recovery-oriented support groups, education, social and advocacy events, a warm telephone line, and a Creative Café where members share their works with a formal audience.

The Department of Occupational Therapy at NOVA Southeastern University has enjoyed a longstanding fieldwork history with 9Muses. For many years, students have filtered in and out of the program for both their mental health and leadership experiences.

I came to the university not long ago, and in learning about 9Muses, I discovered that the works of art could be leased. While we in the occupational therapy department knew what a gem the program was to both the community and to our students, I began to wonder whether we could widen their exposure while advocating for mental health awareness and introducing other healthcare professions to an often-overlooked population.

Bridging the Physical-Mental Divide

According to the World Health Organization, individuals living with a mental illness have a shorter lifespan (10-25 years shorter on average) than their counterparts.1 Those living with a severe and persistent mental illness are at greater risk for obesity, smoking and poor dietary intake, and frequently suffer preventable illnesses such as cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases, diabetes and even cancer.2

These physical conditions are often the result of social and economic inequities that lead to occupational deprivation, lack of access to adequate and affordable treatment, and social isolation resulting from stigma.

With these conditions in mind, I saw the opportunity to lease artwork from 9Muses as a way to bridge the gap between physical and mental illness among students and faculty from various colleges, including healthcare sciences, dental medicine, medical sciences, nursing, optometry, osteopathic medicine and pharmacy. Art, in this case, offered a non-threatening avenue to demystify mental illness and to simply dialogue about the artist — the person, rather than the illness.

Initial steps of executing the project relied heavily on my own leadership skills and navigating a system firmly rooted in the medical model. As coined by Kouzes and Posner, it required me to “challenge the process” to enable key stakeholders to envision the art installation and how it would differ from a pre-existing art museum.

Two separate sets of artwork were personally selected to appeal to a variety of tastes and sensibilities. Nearly six months filled with meetings and clarification later, the green light was given. The Student Occupational Therapy Association (SOTA) agreed to sponsor the installation and their involvement afforded a degree of cache with students from other healthcare professions.

Additionally, first-year SOTA members who participated in the administration of the project were exposed to the mental health population and related occupational concerns earlier in the curriculum. The landscape of the atrium where the works are currently housed changed dramatically from one day to the next. Walls once barren were now suddenly alive with color and spirit.

The social phenomenon was palpable; students and faculty who would typically rush from one building to the next immune to their surroundings had now stopped to engage in discussion about the artwork.

I stood in awe, watching interprofessional engagement with the pieces and repeated looks of amazement when onlookers read plaques detailing the information about the artist and 9Muses. While I would not claim to fully understand those looks, I can imagine that for some the internal dialogue was one of disbelief that someone living with a severe and persistent mental illness could create such beauty.


Returning to OT’s Roots

Thus far, feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and has, as was intended, sparked conversation about mental illness and its connection to physical well-being. The installation is slotted to rotate semi-annually and the goal is for 9Muses to have a permanent presence on campus. 9Muses has also received greater visibility, which enables the program to reach more people who could benefit from all of the tremendously beneficial programming they offer to the local community.

According to each version of the Occupational Therapy Framework to date, practitioners are no longer relegated to intervening at the level of the individual; we are called upon to consider group and population interventions as well. This article describes one intervention that targets a community of current (faculty) and future (student) healthcare professionals who, with education, can create change for the mental health population.

Occupational therapy has its roots in mental health, and this exhibit is a return to those roots by way of advocacy in the hope that those who view the works embrace the potential of all individuals and that we can collectively erase the stigma of mental illness.


  1. World Health Organization. Premature death among people with severe mental disorders. (n.d.) Retrieved March 22, 2016 from
  2. De Hert M, Correll CU, Bobes J, et al. Physical illness in patients with severe mental disorders. I. Prevalence, impact of medications and disparities in health care. World Psychiatry. 2011;10(1):52-77.