Local | Mind, Body & Spirit

Writers emerging from shadows of mental illness

sheila_A Certain slant of lightTwenty-five percent of adults in the United States have a mental illness — from depression and anxiety, to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia — according to a 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, “Mental Illness Surveillance among Adults in the United States.” The percentage of Jewish adults with mental illness mirrors national statistics for the general population. Having a mental illness has long been viewed with stigma that prevents many people from publicly sharing their experiences. Sheila Wilensky and a group of writers from Our Place Clubhouse are hoping to change that.

Wilensky, associate editor of the Arizona Jewish Post, sits on the board of directors of the Coyote Task Force, which is the umbrella organization that oversees Cafe 54/Our Place Clubhouse. Both provide job skills training and other forms of support for those recovering from serious mental illness. Wilensky began volunteering on Thursdays around four years ago to help Clubhouse members with their writing skills. “I believe that we are all on a spectrum of mental health, but that’s only part of our identities,” says Wilensky. “Shortly after the Jan. 8, [2011] shooting in Tucson, I was working with two writers who have schizophrenia. The news was focusing on the shooter’s mental illness. One of the women I was working with asked, ‘Why do so many people think having a mental illness means you may pull a gun out anytime and start shooting?’ Her question got to me, but it was a year before the idea of the chapbook emerged.” In fact, she says, “multiple studies have shown that those with a mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than the perpetrators. As a former teacher, I wanted to help educate people about this misconception.”

Suzi Hileman, one of those wounded in the Jan. 8 shooting, has written the foreward for the book. Wilensky and her co-authors will be signing books at the Jan. 11 Stroll and Roll event sponsored by Hileman’s Grandparents In Residence nonprofit, which emphasizes inter-generational mentoring. The event is also part of the Beyond Tucson commemoration of the Jan. 8 shooting. It will be held at the Christina-Taylor Green Memorial Linear Park (on Shannon, south of Magee) from 8 a.m. till 11 a.m.

Other members of the Tucson Jewish community who have contributed to the chapbook project include Ester and Jay Leutenberg, who are also board members of the Coyote Task Force. The Leutenbergs owned Wellness Reproductions and Publishing in Cleveland before moving to Tucson in 2008. They started the business in 1987, the year after their son, Mitchell, died by suicide. Ester has co-authored more than 65 books in the mental health field, many of them published by Whole Person Associates.

By definition, a chapbook is a small paperback book that usually consists of poetry or fiction. “A Certain Slant of Light. Emerging from the Shadows of Mental Illness,” the chapbook created by Wilensky and the Our Place Clubhouse Thursday Writing Group, is made up of the writers’ personal experiences living with mental illness, introduced by Wilensky’s commentary. One contributing writer is Pam Lipshutz, a self-described social scientist with a bachelor of science degree in nursing and a member of Our Place Clubhouse. “I’ve been writing for years; in fact, I was first published 30 years ago. When I heard Sheila [Wilensky] was coming to Our Place on Thursdays to do a writing group, I wanted to check it out,” says Lipshutz.

Viewing the de-stigmatization of mental illness as the next civil rights movement, Wilensky set out to gain the trust of the writing group to help them feel comfortable sharing feelings about their mental illness. “I would give writing prompts connected to evocative poetry that fit with having a mental illness. After they wrote their thoughts down, they read their work to the group. No one gave comments. There was no judgment. We all clapped after each reading,” says Wilensky. “It was a kind and appreciative group. The Clubhouse writers suffer from everything from obsessive-compulsive disorder to schizophrenia, and range in age from their 20s to 60s, with a wide range of life experiences and backgrounds.”

Lipshutz sees the chapbook as a tool to enlighten others about the truth of living with mental illness and brain disorders. “My goal for participating in this group is that others realize that those of us who have had to live with brain disorders are people. We aren’t monsters. Mental illness has been horrendously stigmatized in the Jewish community and the world in general. We have a voice to open up people’s eyes and educate them.” Inspired by the writing group, Lipshutz spent months on a research paper that she hopes to publish. “People can’t always outwardly see a brain disorder, and they can’t look past a mental illness to see how much intelligence, talent and skill we can offer. I’m turning my anger into energy to move forward.” The last chapter of the chapbook, “Take Heart: The times they are a-changing” focuses on how we as a society can begin to move forward.

“A Certain Slant of Light. Emerging from the Shadows of Mental Illness” is published by Our Place Clubhouse and will be available in mid-January at Café 54, Antigone Books, the University of Arizona Bookstore and Mostly Books. There will be a signing and reception on Friday, Jan. 17 from 5 to 7 p.m. at Our Place Clubhouse, 66 E. Pennington St. Books will be available for purchase at $12.95 each. Refreshments will be provided by Cafe 54. For more information, contact Wilensky at sheilawilensky@gmail.com.

Laura Wilson Etter is a freelance journalist, grant writer and artist in Tucson.