Art in treatment

Student paintings aid addiction recovery

Marissa Falanga’s Portrait of a Sister.


By Lucile Bruce

It’s installation day at the Substance Abuse Treatment Unit.

Hammer in hand, T. Wiley Carr and his student Glenn Paskiewicz quietly, skillfully navigate the clinic corridors. They center paintings on walls, tap in picture hooks, hang, level, and step back to look.

SATU’s newly painted hallways, once adorned with poster art, are being transformed into a gallery of original works.

Carr, a professor of art at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU), didn’t know the meaning of “SATU” when he received a call from a student, who is studying social work at SCSU and volunteering at the clinic.

“She asked me if there might be any student artwork to hang on the walls of SATU,” he recalls. “I said, ‘It depends on what SATU is,’” he jokes.

SATU is the Substance Abuse Treatment Unit of the Connecticut Mental Health Center (CMHC). Like all CMHC programs, SATU is a collaborative endeavor of the State of Connecticut’s Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and the Yale School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry. Yale’s substance abuse program ranks first in the nation; SATU serves as an important training site within that program.

First and foremost, it’s a clinic for uninsured people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.

Treatment at SATU doesn’t involve technology, cutting-edge equipment, or maintenance drugs (which aren’t allowed in any treatment plan). SATU’s highly skilled, compassionate clinicians use cost-effective, holistic approaches like counseling, support groups, role-playing, acupuncture, and, yes, art on the walls.

The new art, says SATU director Donna LaPaglia, Psy. D, helps to create an environment for self-reflection and healing.

After being connected by the student volunteer, she and Carr met last fall and decided to collaborate. As representatives of two state organizations, they felt a special synergy.

“We are a group of people serving the needs of the state in extraordinarily creative ways in dire financial times,” says Carr. “We need to collaborate. The people of Connecticut are our greatest asset.”

Professor Carr named his spring 2012 advanced painting class the “Serenity Project,” he explains, “because serenity is such a common, foundational word in recovery programs.” Here’s the well-known “Serenity Prayer” used in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous groups: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

“Look up the word,” Carr instructed his students. “Think about what it means. Don’t be stereotypical about it. It doesn’t translate to ‘dull.’ It has richness. It says something about peace of mind.”

Carr told the students their paintings would hang in a center for rehabilitation from addictions, but he didn’t force the connections.

From the 15 works created in the “Serenity Project,” SATU staff chose nine for the site’s walls.

During the installation, staff members’ joy is palpable.

“We’ve got all this good energy and spirit here now,” says LaPaglia, echoing the sentiments of everyone who walks by.

“It’s so uplifting and beautiful,” adds clinician Denise Romano, RN. “These paintings are healing for staff members and clients.”

Unlike mechanically reproduced posters, the “Serenity Project” canvases are personal and exposed, mirroring the uniqueness of each artist and the clinic’s commitment to helping clients deepen their self-knowledge and awareness.

In the large conference room, Sean F. Sullivan’s painting of a tree hangs opposite the door. The tree has rich green leaves and a solid trunk, its deep roots visible to the viewer.

“This is where we hold our staff meetings. We hear the most traumatic stories week after week,” says LaPaglia, who in addition to directing SATU is an assistant professor of psychology in the Yale Department of Psychiatry.

Sullivan’s painting, she believes, brings new life to the space.

“It helps us get through the meeting,” she says. “It’s added a dimension that is hopeful — alive and fresh and colorful.”

SCSU’s art department offers courses in several disciplines including painting, graphic design, photography, printmaking, and sculpture. Because on-campus gallery space is extremely limited, students have few opportunities to display their work. To maintain confidentiality, the SATU space isn’t publicly accessible, as a gallery would be.

“It’s funny to say, ‘We’re going to hang your work but you can’t go see it,’” Carr reflects. “But the students were fine with that. They love the idea that their work is helping people.”

Marissa Falanga’s Portrait of Sister hangs in the room where many clients choose to receive auricular (ear) acupuncture each week. The woman in the painting looks upward, her eyes wide, large earrings dangling. She appears open and attentive, a person on a quest.

Katurah Bryant, RN, LMFT, LADC, associate director of SATU, recalls a client who is a visual artist but who stopped painting for 10 years while in the throes of her addiction.

“I said to her, ‘You have a story to tell. And you have a medium in which to tell your story.’

“She’s begun to tap into that,” Bryant continues, “and bring back the talent she had. She now says, ‘Regardless of how much damage I have done, I haven’t lost the skill, and now I’m able to share it with others.’”

Works by student artists feel particularly well-suited to this place, where people come every day to learn how to accept and be themselves.

“The project,” Carr concludes, “is a win-win for everyone.”

This article originally appeared in the online newsletter of the Connecticut Mental Health Center, which Lucile Bruce edits.

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