Gallery paints fuller picture for people who have mental illness

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Nearly two years after opening, a corridor exhibiting the drawings of patients with mental illness at Shanghai Mental Health Center has become a display of more than just pictures.

Visitors have left comments and graffiti in many colors on the white walls surrounding the dozens of drawings, adding new vitality to the display.

The exhibition, dubbed the "No.600 gallery" by citizens, as the address of the Shanghai Mental Health Center is 600 South Wanping Road, has attracted much public attention and is the first of its kind in the country.

"At first, we saw that most of the messages and comments left around the pictures were words of blessings, but later they became more diversified. Some people confided in monologues inside their minds, and some shared their experience of conquering the diseases," said Xu Dejun, head nurse of the rehabilitation department of the hospital.

"Recently we found that the messages began to dialogue with one another," said Xu, adding that colored marker pens and crayons are provided to allow visitors to leave their feelings and perceptions on the walls.

One comment saying "I want to refuse the sense of anxiety," had a response saying: "It's like how you only see the full moon once a month, and some parts of the moon are missing on all the other days. Your life is the same way. If you keep worrying about why the moon can't be round every day, you'll never be able to walk out of the anxiety."

Below, another message wrote, "I chose the path, so I need to walk down or even crawl through it." A response read, "You can take a rest if you feel tired."

"I can feel love overflowing from the drawings and the comments. Some individuals shared their personal feelings after their experiences on the verge of life collapsing," said a visitor in her 30s who only wanted to be identified by her surname Qin.

The drawings are mostly collected from hospitalized and outpatients at the rehabilitation department, many of whom experience schizophrenia, obsession and depression.

The exhibits are updated every three months, and some pieces by patients from medical institutions outside of Shanghai have been added.

Xu said art therapy is part of mental rehabilitation therapy. A group of patients sit down around a table to create their drawings.

"Most individuals with mental disorders haven't received training in drawing and their selection of what to paint and which colors to use are not a result of social discipline. Instead, it's completely the defenseless revealing of their subconsciousness," said Xu.

Drawing is a way for the patients to understand their inner experiences and feelings and regulate their emotions, she said.

"We provide them with empathy and support during their drawing process rather than analyzing their pictures to find if they are too self-centered or feel insecure as it is something often based on the personal interpretation of the onlookers," she said.

After a collective drawing session, the patients share their pieces and their perceptions with peers, which is a way to enhance their sociability and improve their emotional outlook, said Xu.

Many patients were uncooperative and showed resistance at first but gradually began to accept the group as a small team.

"The intention of hosting this gallery is to help more people from society understand the struggles and vitality behind different groups of individuals. We hope that one day society will stop despising or neglecting this community," Xu said.

Chen Xiaoya, a doctor with the rehabilitation department, said that patients also do sports, music therapy, read newspapers and share news as well as learn basic working skills at the department.

"We have a bakery, a convenience store and a hair salon within the hospital. Part of the rehabilitation is that the patients intern at the facilities to help them restore sociability," he said.

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