Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Artist tries to combat stigma of mental illness through works

From the intro to a feature in the Times Union in Albany, N.Y.:

In June 2006, Amber Christian Osterhout learned that her brother, Josh, had been reported missing in Italy. The professor who called from Rome, where Josh had been studying during his last semester of college, had not seen him in class for a week.
"I couldn't help but feel like this was a dream, like this phone call was meant for someone else," said Osterhout, an art director at Shannon-Rose Design in Saratoga Springs (pictured with her artwork). "My family and I spent days trying to piece together this nightmare."

Approximately one week later, Josh called. He was being chased, he told his sister, describing days running through brush, eluding capture in a thriller-like tale complete with plots and bombs. He hadn't called, he said, because he didn't know anything was wrong.

Six months after his return home, Josh was diagnosed with schizophrenia, a biological brain disorder that affects one in 100 people, according to Irene Levine, professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and co-author of the newly released "Schizophrenia for Dummies."

For the next two years, Josh's family struggled to secure the best treatment and help him accept his illness. Levine says the inability to recognize one's illness, or "a lack of insight," has recently been recognized as a symptom of schizophrenia instead of a patient's denial.

"At times, I thought I was losing my mind," Osterhout said about coping with her brother's illness. "You realize how much information is lacking and how bad the stigma is because now it affects you."

Last month, Osterhout teamed up with National Alliance on Mental Illness — New York State (NAMI-NYS) to unveil the educational art exhibit "Gaining Insight: An Examination of the Relationship Between Schizophrenia and Stigma."

"Amber's passion and concern show through her work. Her experience is universal with other family members," said Trix Niernberger, executive director of NAMI-NYS. "Although Josh is one person, he represents 2.4 million American adults living with schizophrenia."

The exhibit — which features six paintings, three life-sized posters and audio — can be viewed at Osterhout hopes to present it in galleries and as the core of educational programs delivered in schools. She will donate 80 percent of print-sale proceeds to mental health organizations.