SUNSET PARK — After months of discussion, participation and work, the ribbon was finally cut on a massive mural outside of P.S. 24 in Sunset Park that raises awareness of mental health issues.
The ceremony at the school, 427 38th St., was held on Thursday, Oct. 24, led by representatives of the New York City Health Department. The mural, entitled “Feeling All Four Seasons, Bridging All Four Seasons,” was designed by a local artist, with help from neighborhood residents, people with mental health conditions and peer specialists — people who have experience with mental illness and have been trained to support those who battle it.
In attendance were DOHMH Assistant Commissioner Dr. Myla Harrison, Director of Rehabilitation Programs Yumi Ikuta, Principal of P.S. 24 Jacqueline Nikovic, School District 15 Superintendent Anita Skop, Baltic Street AEH participants, Executive Director of Baltic Street AEH Isaac Brown and artist Julia Cocuzza.
Harrison told this paper how gratifying the ceremony was, given “the months of work that went into it.
“We know that people are hesitant to talk about [mental health issues] and because of that, the stigma in particular, these mural projects are really a way to bring people together to talk about mental health and illness and to help folks know that they can connect to get care, that help is available.” she said.
“The ceremony marked the end of a transformative year for me,” said Cocuzza. “There were certainly many challenges working on so large a scale for such an extended length of time in collaboration with so many communities and stakeholders, but I’m very happy with the final product. I’ve enjoyed hearing the various interpretations of the design and the personal narratives it has conjured up. The mural belongs to the public, so I hope the neighborhood continues to claim ownership and make it personally meaningful beyond its primary message.”
The mural is part of the larger NYC Mural Art Project which is a Health Department initiative. Currently, there are eight murals up around the city.
“The event was enlightening as to what building communities of hope and compassion can be about,” Brown said. “We at Baltic Street AEH believe that it takes a village to raise a child and a village to support an adult. We also believe in reaching across to give a hand to the less fortunate amongst us, our elderly, our vets, our people who are suffering from mental health issues and of course those who need help with financial stability.
“This mural means a lot to us to our community, to the city and most of all to the parents, children and public that was part of its creation and those who will view it in the future,” Brown stressed.
“Collaboration was absolutely critical,” in the creation of the approximately 3,000-square-foot mural, Harrison said. “The whole point of these murals is to bring the community together and get them to talk about these issues that some people have a hard time talking about. Sunset Park in particular is a high immigrant community where Spanish is spoken, Chinese languages are spoken.”
For that reason, she stressed, it includes words in those languages. “The whole idea is that it’s for the community. It’s in a public-facing space so that anyone walking by can see it and ideally have conversations about what the mural means and how it got created,” she said.
The seasonal aspect of the mural drives home one of its overarching themes, that “our trauma or diagnosis does not define us, just like race, gender or other stigmatizing labels do not define us,” said Cocuzza. “We in the mental health community are just like you: We experience all four seasons in New York, we cycle through emotions, highs and lows, and we all seek connection, understanding and compassion — from family and strangers alike — just like everyone else.”
With five of the eight murals that are part of the project outside school buildings, “I think everyone wins,” said Harrison. “Our school colleagues win, the Department of Education wins and the parents and kids at that school are able to get something out of the experience learning more about mental illness.”
That started well before the murals were complete, thanks to three paint festivals that brought the community to help complete the mural, noted Harrison.
“They enabled folks to take part in the mural-making project,” she said.
Doing so helps to put an end to the shame that may come with having mental health issues.
“We know that when we ask people who are participating, that their level of stigma decreased,” Harrison said
“Mental health is slowly becoming more of a priority for New York City and for this country as a whole, which is so great to see,”added Cocuzza. “Social barriers built by stigma and bias are slowly breaking down, one small interaction at a time. Public art is a powerful tool to enact change and connect communities. I’m happy I could use my medium to make a contribution to this positive movement.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, call 1-888 NYC-WELL.