LA kickstarts community arts festival for mental health awareness

We Rise LA seeks to eliminate the stigmas of mental health and encourage personal recovery through creative expression

Mental health awareness is expanding in ways that we haven’t seen before. Through social media, bloggers, entertainment and, even, government-held programs, there is a keen effort to widen the scope of mental health treatment and to start a more open conversation about mental illness.

One of those efforts to shed new light on mental illness came in the form of We Rise LA, a new project developed by the Los Angeles County’s Department of Mental Health (LACDMH) and a host of community organizations.

The free 10-day arts and music pop-up festival and rally was held from May 19-30 in Chinatown where artists, activists and health professionals came together to destigmatize mental health with an emphasis in creative expression through the arts.

From panel discussions, to film screenings, to interactive activities, to a dance workshop by hip-hop dance crew Jabbawockeez, the 10-day affair was designed to be a safe, inclusive space to “create a more positive conversation around mental health,” according to the event’s website.

A-List speakers and performers included rappers Common and YG, actors Yara Shahidi and Jesse Williams and Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, who surprised high school students and spoke about the potential of young people and students and reminded them of the importance of being mindful.

“I think mental health is extremely important. It’s an issue that’s now coming to the forefront,” Bryant said in an interview at the event. “I see so many kids get so discouraged because they’re expecting to make this quantum leap, and when that quantum leap doesn’t come it feels like it’ll never come. We accept any other challenge that’s presented in front of us, [and] mental health is no different. So let’s face the challenge individually, but understand that we’re facing that challenge collectively.”

On Sunday, May 27, the renowned hip-hop dance crew Jabbawockeez led an affecting, high-energy dance workshop, hyping up the crowd of mainly young people and encouraging them to let loose. During a crowd Q&A with the dance crew, Kevin “Kb” Brewer went on an inspiring tangent about how to deal with bullies or people who “try to bring you down.”

“If a bully is getting you down, there’s a chance that that bully is going through something that you don’t even know,” Brewer said, addressing a young boy who has been the victim of intense bullying at school. “The most important thing you can do is to recognize that projecting of emotions has nothing to do with you and you can only control how you feel and work to recognize your own strength, worth and potential. It’s easier said than done, but it’s possible for everyone.”

To further emphasize the impact of coping through artistic and creative expression, an art exhibit showcased poignant and moving photographs, paintings, and various installations by artists like Shepard Fairey, Glenn Kaino and CYRCLE. (The art exhibit is still open to the public until June 10.)

Mental health in Fil-Am community 

Also on hand were a host of clinicians from the mental health field, including Josephina Dhungana, a mental health clinical supervisor with the LACDMH, who has worked with a variety of people with mental illnesses that range from drug addiction to psychosis to depression and suicidal ideations.

“There was this notion that when you say ‘mental illness’, it was often only associated with psychotics or the more severe disorders, when it’s really a broad term to describe a lot of things,” Dhungana, a Filipino-American, said in an interview with the Asian Journal at We Rise LA.

The Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community are, generally, the least likely ethnic group to actively seek out mental health services, according to the findings of two studies from 2008 and 2012 from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

And within the Filipino community, the resistance to mental health treatment — psychiatry, therapy and medication management — is profound. Since many Filipinos are devout Christians and spirituality permeates the culture, religion is often seen as its own treatment for depression, anxiety, trauma recovery and a whole host of mental disorders, Dhungana said.

“For the Filipino community, there are a lot of factors associated with [mental illness],” “One is not recognizing the issue as a health issue. They’ll often say, ‘Oh, I’ll just talk to my priest” or “I’ll just talk to my pastor.’ But if you’re not into it, if it’s an inherited religion or faith, you’re just not into it and that’s not going to be an effective coping tool to handle stress and your symptoms.”

She also said that there is a sense of pride within many Filipino families where if someone is going through trauma, it’s “hush-hush.” Many don’t want to admit that something is wrong and, for that reason, don’t seek out professional help.

Over the last few years, the conversation about mental health has evolved rapidly where mental health treatments are available through so many channels. Dhungana, who is based in Palmdale, California, said that many Filipino families she sees who are struggling mentally are more keen to attend church-based mental health programs, which make them feel safer to discuss what’s affecting their mental and emotional health.

She provides occasional support for families at a Filipino church in Palmdale where regular church-goers speak with her about their issues. She encourages them to seek long-term treatment options and reminds them that there is no shame in seeking professional help which is, at times, necessary.

“They feel more comfortable talking about their ‘problems’ with the people in their church because that is what is familiar to them,” she said. “But if it comes to the point where they tell me they can’t sleep and the anxiety is really taking over, I have to tell them this is beyond what we can do right now and I have to refer you to a professional who can see you on a long-term basis and will walk with you through the treatment process.”

Dhungana was one of the many professionals on hand at We Rise LA to provide assistance and support to the event-goers if they need someone to talk to. On the topic of mental health events like We Rise LA, Dhungana spoke passionately about the need for more community-based programs, resources and events tailored to relieving the stigmas of mental health and educating people about the vastness of mental health.

“It’s changed now and there’s this greater awareness and there’s no shame in mental health, and there’s no shame in seeking therapy, medication or any kind of professional help,” she said. “More people can see that mental health encompasses a lot of issues whether you are having a panic attack, stagefright or even anxiety during a test, and it can affect you so much that it impairs your functioning. We all experience nervousness or anxiety but when it completely stops you from doing what you want to do, then it’s a different story. That’s a disorder, and people should realize that there’s treatment for that.”

If you or somebody you know is going through a non-emergency mental crisis and would like confidential mental health information or referrals to service providers, call the LACDMH 24/7 ACCESS hotline at 1-800-854-7771. The National Suicide Hotline is 1-800-273-8255 is free and available 24/7. For emergency situations where significant harm may occur, experts recommend calling 9-1-1.

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