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Garage Bands And Pastels Sometimes Are The Key To Mental Health

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

A wall of patient art at the Sutter Center for Psychiatry.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Van Gogh. Plath. Cobain. Some of the world’s most influential artists have suffered greatly from mental illness. There is no scientific consensus of a genetic link between creativity and mental illness. But a number of studies show a link between recovery and art and music therapy.

Laura Bemis is a photographer from Elk Grove. She has a mental illness.
"The therapists that sit there and say, ‘How do you feel?’ and ‘How does that make you feel?’ and want you to figure out your own problems used to drive me nuts,” says Bemis.

For nearly 20 years, Bemis was in and out of hospitals and psychiatric treatment centers until a doctor diagnosed her with multiple personality disorder five years ago.

Laura’s treatment includes counseling and medication — and art therapy.

“When I get into a mood where I’m almost getting to that psychotic or that feeling of, ‘Oh, I think I should just drive to Italy’ even though you can’t drive overseas, but my mind thinks you can, then I go through the steps on my coping card that I made up to make sure I re-ground myself and things go OK,” says Bemis.

Laura Bemis carries a list of positive things she can do to calm herself should she feel her mental health deteriorating. Bob Moffitt / Capital Public Radio

That coping card includes working with two types of media.

"I find that by taking pictures and then de-saturating them on my computer, and putting them on art paper and then recoloring them, the colors that I feel at the time... help me release some of my inner anxieties and inner struggles,” she says.

Her art appears at local galleries and she has sold every piece. But that's not what makes her art valuable.

“It calms me in some way,“ she says.

Calm is at a premium at the Napa State Mental Hospital. The patients are considered dangerous to themselves or others and are here under a court order. The housing units and treatment areas are secured by guards, chain link fences, razor wire and locked gates.

Napa State Hospital
The Napa State Hospital is one of nine state mental hospitals. Napa is one of two hospitals that treat civil commitments and people committed because of a criminal act. Bob Moffitt / Capital Public Radio

But, inside, the Napa music room is bright and cheerful.  There's a mural of people singing and a wall of instruments that include drums made from barrels covered with animal skins.

Each patient is assessed when admitted and their interests and hobbies are noted as possible pathways to treatment.  Sometimes, that pathway is music.

The hospital has a choir, a drum group and a band called The Wild Coyotes. Sometimes, they write their own songs. The lyrics often speak to their experiences.

Lyrics likes: Crawled like a caterpillar up the tree, over the moon through the galaxy, alien bought me a chicken wing. Right about then, I started to think. 'Well, oh my, oh my, wait a minute! Oh my, oh my, wait a minute! I must be out of my minnnndd…”

The Wild Coyotes

The band has six to 10 patients. New patients join as others are discharged. Karen Moran is a music therapist on the discharge unit. She says it takes months or years for each person to get to this point in their recovery.

"Our patients have psychiatric illnesses and sometimes the symptoms of those illnesses can be very distracting, can produce anxiety, can be very upsetting and sometimes, because of the nature of the illness, can be preoccupied by their symptoms,” says Moran. “So, when we want to get them in the moment through music, we're trying to draw them out of that experience and into what is happening in the room."
Napa Music Room 1
Drums are an integral part of music therapy. Napa State Hospital has a Taiko drum group, a choir and a cover band that often creates its own music. Napa State Hospital / Courtesy

Moran says patients usually start with a simple drum beat. It's soothing and helps patients' confidence. Once patients have stabilized, they're encouraged to discuss favorite song lyrics and then to write songs of their own.

When patients show they can stay on their meds, attend therapy regularly, and avoid altercations, they earn the right to join The Wild Coyotes.

The lyrics in the song “Medication” refer to a person’s struggles to stay on the medication that is allowing recovery to happen:

"Medication. Take your medication. You've been psychotic. That's your motivation. Dedication. Toot your medication. You know you want it, what's your hesitation?"

Moran says the goal is helping patients understand their condition and what makes symptoms worse.

“What feelings or thoughts come up prior to their illness getting worse, and what are they going to do about that?“ says Moran.  “What coping skills do they have?“

A review of music therapy published in 2014 by the Indian Journal of Psychiatry called it, “an efficient form of alternative therapy in treating major psychiatric conditions.”

In Elk Grove and Napa, a photographer and a garage band would probably agree.

Napa Music Room 3
A mural outside the Napa State Mental Hospital’s music room. Napa State Hospital / Courtesy

Bob Moffitt

Sacramento Region Reporter

Bob reports on all things northern California and Nevada. His coverage of police technology, local athletes, and the environment has won a regional Associated Press and several Edward R. Murrow awards.   Read Full Bio 

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