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Mural to be painted outside Sunset Park school to raise awareness of mental health services

Using art to raise awareness of mental health issues and to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will be installing a new mural on the face of P.S. 24 in Sunset Park, one of two being created as part of the NYC Mural Arts Project.

Approximately 3,000 square feet in size, the mural will be painted by members of the community at the school, 427 38th St., on Sat., May 4.

Entitled “Feeling All Four Seasons, Bridging All Four Seasons,” the concept for the mural was designed by artist Julia Cocuzza and members of Baltic Street, AEH, Inc., a peer-run not-for-profit corporation dedicated to improving the quality of life for people living with mental illness.

“Our objective was to try to engage the community in discussions around mental illness,” explained Director of Rehabilitation Programs at DOHMH Yumi Ikuta. “Nobody wants to talk about this topic. I have bipolar disorder myself. We use taxpayer dollars for a lot of great mental health services throughout the city but we don’t do enough to engage the actual  people in the community. Our goal is to raise mental health awareness as well as break down the stigma towards people with mental illness. In order to do that, you have to work with the public.

“A lot of people think we can’t recover or do things like work and go to school,” she added, stressing that engaging the public in a creative project such as a mural is “the best way” of correcting that impression.

“It takes a lot of hands,” Ikuta said. “By having discussions throughout the year to develop the theme and create a design with the community, we use these workshops to educate folks around mental illness.”

This is just the beginning, Ikuta added, noting, “This is a permanent program. We envision having hundreds of murals in the future so people will start asking, what is this all about. We have plaques that explain the mural and eventually, we want people with mental illness to give tours around the city of different murals.”

The project is in its third year.

Vanessa Smith, mural art program manager, added that community mural-making is a great way of bringing people together.

“They talk about different mental health needs,” she explained, stressing that the images are “meaningful for them to put on a mural as they relate to the culture and identity of Sunset Park today.”

Cocuzza said she was drawn to this project because she wanted to show that mental health and physical health should be treated in a similar fashion. “This project attracted me because of the prioritization of mental wellness,” she said.

The length of the project, she added, enhanced the ability to go deep. “We had 25 weekly sessions with the folks at Baltic. We had specialists lead intense sessions having to do with stigma and empowerment, and we spoke about recovery. These are intense conversations. People are disclosing a lot of their personal narrative.”

In addition, there were ongoing conversations with Sunset Park residents, including families at P.S. 24.

Those involved in creating the mural want viewers, “To understand that mental illness may not be curable at this time but it is treatable. There are plenty of services out there and people can recover,” said Ikuta.

“We have more that connects us than isolates us,” added Cocuzza, who said she used the seasons as an overarching motif because everyone experiences them. “There are beautiful and dark moments in every season and regardless of everything else, getting to know one another is what breaks down barriers.”

“The mother that drops her kid off at school, the different people that walk by on a day-to-day basis, can learn something new each time they look at the mural,” said Smith. “People can reflect on themselves, and their own mental health, and what mental health means to them, and get something new each time they see it.”

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