Merced County Times Newspaper
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Wellness Club combines art with lessons about mental health

 

Jesse Hunt was first drawn to art by his older brother.

“He was really good at art and naturally I was like, ‘Yeah, let me try that!’” he said. “I was too young to even realize, but I kept going back to it because it gave me that positive attention that kids want. And I was good at it.”

He won an award at school for a picture of basketball star Charles Barkley, but it was just an occasional hobby for him until recently.

As a recreational therapist working in a mental health facility, Hunt worked through the pandemic and found himself overwhelmed by the negativity and political polarization in the media. So when the George Floyd protests came around, he decided to get out his art supplies.

“For the first time I started putting how I was feeling about the news onto a piece of art,” he said in a recent interview at his home, flanked by guitars, ukuleles and his own paintings. “And I remembered, oh yeah, that’s what that feels like to get out something that’s ticking you off and putting it on paper and just trying to work it out.”

“Before that I really didn’t use art for emotional release or anything like that,” he said. “I probably did, but I just never thought about it.”

And that’s when he had an idea. What if he could help show other people how to get their feelings out creatively?

“I thought, what if there was a place in the community where anytime you felt like you needed to feel connected to people, you could show up and there’ll be somebody to see or something to do?”

So he started Merced Wellness Art Club, a free monthly meetup group at the MAC that provides a space to create art and combines it with discussions and lessons about mental health. They had their first meeting in January. The theme was “Slaying the Dragon” and revolved around confronting things that hold people back vs. things that they want to achieve in life.

Hunt brings more than ten years of experience in the mental health field to his project.

“Working in mental health facilities, I’ve started thinking like, hey we’re not solving all the problems here,” he said. “When they get checked into the facility, we’re definitely helping them out, but they need the community. A place where they can go and do something.”

In a lot of ways, Hunt’s idea is similar to the vision put forth by John F. Kennedy. In 1963, JFK signed a little-known law called the Community Mental Health Act. That act laid the groundwork for ending the practice of shoving mentally ill people into state hospitals and asylums — think “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” — where they were separated from their families and often ignored and mistreated.

But it also envisioned a nationwide network of community mental health centers, where people suffering from mental illness could go and receive help in their own communities and still live among their own family and friends. Ultimately though, the project fell by the wayside due to a lack of political leadership. Only half of the centers were built and funding soon dried up even as state hospitals eliminated nearly all of their beds for mentally ill patients. With nowhere to go, many were forced into homelessness and others ended up in prison, a problem that still haunts us to this day.

And while Hunt’s idea is still getting off the ground, he has hopes that it could someday grow into something bigger.

“Eventually the goal would be to have a non-profit and run groups every single day. Have a drop-in art center and just be a fixture in the community where anybody can stop by,” he said. “But for now, it’s great if anybody comes.”

Their next meeting is this Sunday, Feb. 26, at 1:30 p.m. on the third floor of the MAC. The theme is “You Are Story,” about the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves and how they impact our lives.

The meetings are free to attend. Visit online at: wellnessartclub.org, email [email protected] or call (209) 259-0255.

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