Communities across the Mid-Ohio Valley are focusing more and more on the arts; from the restoration of historic theatres to the installation of public murals to community events uplifting theatre and beautification of public space, the creative economy of our region is seemingly growing stronger by the minute. One organization in particular – the Athens Photo Project in Athens, OH – has been working for nearly 20 years to strengthen the arts in their community through a unique lens: by focusing on mental health.
“Athens Photo Project was founded in 2000 by local photographer and mental health advocate, Elise Sanford. As a mother and member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Elise witnessed the barriers that community members living with chronic mental health conditions faced,” shared Nate Thomson, Executive Director of the Athens Photo Project.
“She realized that the services offered within clinical mental health treatment on its own could not ensure that those most in need were able to rebuild a meaningful and engaged life in the community by overcoming the barriers of stigma, isolation, and shame associated with mental illness. Elise proposed using photography and creative expression as tools for those affected by mental illness to explore their community with fresh eyes and renewed purpose while establishing value in their perspective and life experience,” shared Thomson.
From the founding of the Athens Photo Project to today, the organization has filled class after class with locals looking for safe space to explore the arts and gain confidence in their abilities to navigate community life. The organization has maintained an ongoing, unsolicited waiting list of individuals hoping to become involved, which is a testament to the demand for this unique offering.
Having this support option in the community has expanded the definition of who can provide mental health support, by creating new job opportunities for artists and peer support specialists to deliver recovery-oriented programming.
According to NAMI, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience mental illness in a given year. And, of the 20.2 million adults in the U.S. who experience a substance abuse disorder, 50.5% of those co-experience a mental illness. Programs and workshops like those offered by the Athens Photo Project work to make a direct, positive impact.
“The Athens Photo Project has transformed how a community mental health system of care looks by introducing the arts and a complimentary mental health support option to traditional clinical care,” shared Thomson. “Having this support option in the community has expanded the definition of who can provide mental health support, by creating new job opportunities for artists and peer support specialists to deliver recovery-oriented programming.”
To continue their direct, positive impact, the Athens Photo Project was recently awarded funding for regional workforce training by Buckeye Hills Regional Council, a local council of governments focused on improving the quality of life for residents in southeast Ohio.
“Building a trained workforce is a key piece of community development across Appalachian Ohio, and that piece resonates profoundly in local communities,” says Bret Allphin, Development Director for Buckeye Hills Regional Council. “One of our long-term goals is to ensure that local residents can compete in the 21st-century workforce.”
This service fills a support gap for community members who feel undervalued in the community…
The funded regional job training project will bring together job and career training specialists and participants to build on existing art-based behavioral health programs and develop new initiatives benefiting the social service sector in southeastern Ohio by creating jobs, economic activity, and a sustainable training program for future activity. The total amount awarded was $90,000 and the initiative will serve both Athens and Hocking counties.
“The Athens Photo Project has developed a program model that balances the arts education, peer support, and civic contribution. This service fills a support gap for community members who feel undervalued in the community and are looking for the means to create new friendships, positive routines, and most of all learn how to express their creativity, ideas, and emotions through the arts,” shared Thomson.
Creating space for individuals living with mental health conditions to heal in a safe space while also being equipped with hard skills connected to the arts is a unique approach to workforce development in the region. Currently, the unemployment rate in southeast Ohio is 6.8%, and through this programming, the staff of the Athens Photo Project hopes to make a difference.
“The artists in our program are developing strong skills in the creative arts and photography, and have consistently been sharing their artwork at local, state, and national levels through juried exhibitions, public art installations, and lecture presentations,” shared Thomson.
“This program is transforming the assets that Athens Photo Project and its artists have been developing for nearly 20-years into training and services that will help financially support Athens Photo Project and its artists while contributing to the economic and cultural vibrancy of Appalachian Ohio.”
To learn more about the Athens Photo Project, visit https://athensphotoproject.org/.
To learn more about Buckeye Hills Regional Council and regional job training projects, visit www.buckeyehills.org