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by Anna Stalker
Published April 8, 2014

Anna is a writer, reader, and observer-at-large who grew up in the South without a Southern accent. She had an early inkling that lives are built of stories, and ever since she has been trying to write them down. She enjoys St. Louis for its afternoon thunderstorms and knack for attracting good people.

How Art Can Change the Conversation About Mental Health

In her work with UMSL’s Missouri Institute of Mental Health (MIMH), Andrea Purnell is used to hearing painful stories. “What do I do with that? Take a lot of it to the stage. I use a lot of what I see and other people’s experiences to craft characters. And that’s my way of getting it out,” she says. “Sometimes just having the courage to talk about it, and them hearing it from someone who–I’m not a 60-year-old white guy, you know what I mean?” From performances to gallery shows, Purnell takes a variety of creative approaches as Director of Communications and the Arts to raising awareness about mental health. “Show me depression in dance, show me schizophrenia in music,” she’ll tell artists. “How is that staccato? Or what does that feel like?”

In the basement of the tall domed building at 5400 Arsenal, the walls are painted a generic, institutional color that hovers somewhere between white and yellow. Although it currently houses MIMH, this building used to be the state insane asylum, Purnell explains, at a time when mental health was poorly understood. “PMS did not yet have a name–but, ‘Once a month, my wife is just doing something!’ And I’m making light of it, but that was truly the reality.” There’s an old wooden door in the basement, which is locked now, but the original cells are still standing on the other side. “I’ll try to get people to come here for a meeting, and they’re like, ‘No, I’m not coming there!’”

Last October, she worked with a friend to organize a flash mob in downtown St. Louis. Roughly 300 people danced together to “Funkytown”, hoping the lyrics, “Talk about it, talk about it, talk about it,” would apply to the silence surrounding mental health. She pitched the idea to a packed and enthusiastic room at the Independence Center, a local organization that provides support to those dealing with mental illness. “You walk in the door there and you don’t know the difference between a staff member and someone there with a mental health challenge. I just love it,” she says. As she was walking to her car, an older woman who had seen her pitch approached her. Her name was Joanie.

Thinking the woman was interested in their programs, Purnell started to hand her a brochure–but she moved Purnell’s hand aside. “You’re from that place. And bad things happen at that place,” the woman said. Taken aback, Purnell put the brochures out of sight. “I am from that place, and bad things did happen at that place,” she responded. Joanie later revealed that she had been a patient in the old asylum. “But you all are doing some really good things now,” she said to Purnell. Then, she brought up Purnell’s idea. “I think I do want to dance with you,” she said. “What’s this you got, a flashmob going?”

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Purnell initially got involved in mental health work by chance, when Provident Counseling hired her in 2008 after she moved back to St. Louis from Los Angeles. “They told me, ‘You are not qualified for this job. But we would like to hire you anyway.’” She was well-suited to their outreach work. “The youngest of 6, I think I’ve probably always been way too animated,” she says. She began acting in high school, and even though her parents refused to pay for a theatre degree in college, they bought her a one-way ticket to Los Angeles when she graduated. “I was really too young to realize how insane that idea was.” She lived on Sunset Boulevard, delivering pizzas and waiting tables to support herself. On the weekends, she worked as a stage manager for the Groundlings, the improv troupe that produced comedians such as Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig. “Sometimes you can escape in a character and do things differently than you would have done yourself, but you still have a chance to do them. And sometimes you can escape and learn something.”

When she moved back to St. Louis, Purnell began working in Provident’s Transitions to Work for Youth program, which helped North St. Louis kids who had dropped out of high school either re-enroll in school or find a job. “I’m in there ready to train and teach, and these students are like, ‘Yeah, Ms. Purnell, that sounds nice–but I’m hungry,’ or, ‘My baby needs food at home, my lights are off, and I have no idea how I’m going to survive the rest of this week.’” She encouraged her students to put their struggles in writing. “What seemed to be problems turned into amazing monologues,” she says.

Purnell has begun to process her own personal tragedies in a similar way. “My mother unfortunately passed away from cancer. And I’m still grieving, but will use my grief to create a production out of that. So I don’t know if that’s healthy–it is for me.” More recently, Purnell’s sister was seriously ill with a connective tissue disease. She contemplated an advanced directive: a legally binding document that would state whether or not she wished to be resuscitated in an emergency, even if it would prolong her life. “As the person who is standing as the power of attorney–that’s still my best friend, that’s still my sister. And so I still have to have this power that I don’t want.” Purnell started imagining a piece called “The Powerless Me” or “The Power I Never Wanted.” “Something’s going to come out of this,” she says.

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In 2008, she collaborated with Dr. Vetta Thompson, an associate professor at Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work, to write and produce a play called “Depression … Whose Disease is it Anyway?” Through several vignettes, the play examines mental health issues in the African-American community. “Some of it goes back to race, all types of things–but we didn’t talk about mental health in my household. It wasn’t discussed. Do I have family members that, knowing what I know now about the signs and symptoms, perhaps could have had a mental health challenge? Heck yeah.”

Producing the play convinced Purnell that she wanted to pursue arts outreach, not therapy. “People got up at the end and said, ‘I felt like I went to a counseling session, and I would never go to a counseling session.’” Having Thompson, a trained social worker, involved in the production proved crucial–not just to contribute professional knowledge, but to absorb some of the audience’s emotion. “You have to be careful of your own mental health when you work in a field like this,” Purnell says. “As many people that are stigmatized and shy away from me, I probably have just as many that will grab me afterwards and say, ‘Let me tell you my story’ … I’ve been in the bathroom crying with people after presentations, just because they felt like this is finally someone who understands.”

During outreach events, Purnell often cites the statistic that one in four people will struggle with a mental health challenge in their lives. “It’s an everybody–I won’t say ‘problem,’ but it’s an everybody situation.” Far from the basement, in a brick-lined conference room on an upper floor, she reaches across the table and shuffles a small pile of torn scraps of brown butcher paper with burnt edges. They are a remnant of an art installation by La’Shay M. Williams, from the Mental Health Awareness Arts Showcase Purnell organized last year. Williams struggled with depression, and “she just would never talk about it,” Purnell says. “But one day she found the courage to, and found courage to get help.” For the showcase, she copied entries from the diary she kept during the worst of her struggle onto a mural, filled with words like “fear,” “anger,” and “hopeless.” Then, she set it on fire.

For more information about Andrea Purnell or UMSL’s MIMH, visit here.

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What seemed to be problems turned into amazing monologues.”

– Andrea Purnell

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