Which of us is normal?


A Czech organisation called "Change" has just finished its first ever campaign in Prague's metro aiming to raise public awareness of the mentally ill. Mental illness is not a marginal, minority issue. According to statistics about twenty percent of Czechs suffer depression but only four percent ever get treated.

As I was waiting to meet Tereza I was trying to picture her. If you have ever wondered what a person suffering from serious mental illness looks like, you have wasted your time. Tereza looks like anybody else. When she gets attacks she mistakes herself for a celebrity or a saviour. One way she manages to vent her feelings is through art therapy.

"A person has a chance to express her feelings and release energy. Art therapy makes me feel free. You can let your imagination loose and simply create. I am not a real artist. I don't paint when I am fine. I have not done anything for a year now. I paint only when I feel a need to express something."

Says Tereza about her time in the art studio, run by the civic organisation Baobab that helps people with similar problems. When people with mental illness are discharged from clinics, their self-esteem tends to be very low and they feel that their ambitions are in ruins. The leader of the art studio Mariana Stefancikova recalls Tereza's early days.

"She came and she had her own ideas in her mind and she wanted to paint them. She was an interesting person because she was not afraid to try new techniques or new materials. Some people are a little bit anxious to try something new."

According to Mariana, Tereza is very adaptive and adventurous. They both agree that art therapy has helped her a great deal.

"I painted my last pictures a year ago when I was going through a rough time. I mainly painted trees and nature especially when we were on holiday. My family liked the pictures very much. I gave them to different people and they all liked them. I paint with tempera paints when I have too much energy to get rid of and too much to express because you can be energetic with them. If I am in a mood to play with it a little bit than I choose ink."

Says Tereza about her techniques. She no longer visits the studio. But many others come on a regular basis to release their feelings. What do they do in the studio? Mariana Stefancikova again.

"They can paint anything they have in their minds. We have the experience that if they paint if they create their pictures it is like a relief of their problem."

What is the most common picture or colour?

"That is a very interesting question. When they start their pictures are drawn only in pencil, only black and white, only simple objects. As they continue you can see their production changes. It means that if they solve something on their pictures they can solve something in their lives."

I can see all the pictures of cats on the wall. Can you explain what they mean?

"The people painted their cat and they told stories about their cat and it was a story about themselves. They projected their personality into the cat. I am doing what the cat is doing, what the cat is solving it is what I am solving in my life. For example there are just, as you can see, stripes - red and blue and yellow. The stripes are feelings of the cat. How the cat is feeling when somebody strokes her or somebody feeds her."

Which one is your favourite?

"Which one is my favourite? My favourite is the portrait of a cat with big yellow eyes. She knows what she is able to do, she can accept herself the way she is. It means her self-esteem is very good."

As we speak Mariana Stefancikova stresses that her clients are not dangerous, only ill, just as anyone of us can be. What comes as an obstruction in one situation can turn out to be an advantage somewhere else, especially when it comes to painting.

"People with psychiatric diseases have special experiences. They have really special ideas in their creative production, in their pictures. We can really think about art therapy that it is really therapy but also art. We can think about these people as artists. There is something inside that we can call art."

Tereza tells me about a picture she painted in 1999, after seeing an exhibition of press photographs. Her picture - an indefinite human figure in yellow and orange - has become a symbol of the struggle to help overcome prejudice about mental illness, and became widely known when it was used on the poster campaign that has just ended. So how did Prague commuters react to the posters. Petra Jezkova from the NGO "Change":

"The first reaction was " Yes, it is interesting, it is a very nice picture, it is mostly positive. But the other reactions were from other people who thought we should have used some photographs of smiling people, not this painting. If you want to have a successful campaign you should use pictures of happy people."

The campaign exhibited pictures by many mentally ill people in Prague's metro and offered professional help to anyone feeling they might suffer mental illness. The unusual title "Which of us is normal?" was there to provoke.

"It is a little bit provocative question. That is what we wanted. Because if you ask yourself if you are normal you have to confess that sometimes you are not normal. Everyone is the same, has the same problems. It can happen to everyone, everyone can have mental illness. It is like any other illness and you can treat it. "