With 1-in-4 people in the world being affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives, chances are you or someone you care about has dealt with mental health issues.
But unlike physical health issues, people tend to look down on or feel awkward around those affected by mental health issues. One town in Spain decided to use art to challenge those negative views.
Just a few miles outside of Barcelona is the picturesque town of Sant Boi, nestled against the beautiful mountains of the Parque forestal del Montbaig nature reserve in Spain. Naturally, the views are breathtaking.
But if you were to ask someone from Spain about Sant Boi, the view isn’t the first thing they’ll mention. Founded in 1855, the large mental health hospital in the center of town has given the town a reputation of being full of crazy people.
“When you’re outside of Sant Boi, for example Barcelona, and the people ask, ‘where are you from?’ and you say ‘from Sant Boi,’ they say, ‘Oh, the town of the loonies,’” local artist Dani Sánchez said to CNN. “This is what we want to change.”
It’s not all that uncommon to run into one of the residents of the hospital on the street on any given day, which can lead to some “funny situations or uncomfortable ones,” said Nien Boots, a resident of the town.
Everyone Gets Lonely
Nien described one resident who regularly tries to seduce women around the town, which leads to some uncomfortable, awkward situations. “Other residents are in need of social interaction,” she said. “They will sit down with you at the terrace or try to talk with you on the street. Everybody gets a bit lonely sometimes.”
Inside and Out
Just as there is a stigma about the “town full of crazies” that comes from the outside, there is also a stigma about people with mental health issues among the people who live in Sant Boi. For Sánchez, it’s a deeply personal issue.
Close to Home
That’s because two members of Sánchez’s family have spent some time in Sant Boi’s health care center. So when Boots was putting together a project intended to use art to change local attitudes around mental health, he was on board from day one.
Boots’s project was ambitious, to say the least. She wanted to bring together 40 young artists to transform a wall that separated the hospital from the rest of the community from an eyesore into a thing that the community could be proud of.
In recent years, maintenance on the wall had been neglected and it was covered in graffiti. If you asked Sant Boi resident Alejandro Gil, he would tell you it was “in awful condition. I felt really bad when I saw the wall so full of dirt.”
The mural would change that while also challenging taboos around mental health. Boots gathered ten artists from Norway, ten from the United Kingdom, and ten from Sweden to work with ten local artists, including Sánchez to San Boi. When they were all gathered together, they collaboratively decided what they would paint on the mural.
To start things off, they were asked to think about the worst possible image they could choose to paint on the hospital wall. That odd question was aimed to begin a frank and honest discussion about mental health taboos. As you may expect, that conversation and several others that followed were intense at times.
In the end, the artists settled on the theme of carpets. “We all agreed on a final idea based on the rugs theme, where a part of the rug leans out on one side of the wall, while the other half comes out onto the other side,” Sánchez said. “So this idea poses a question, a sort of enigma, and invites the neighbors to walk into the hospital.”
Once they’d settled on a concept, the artists turned to residents of the health care center for help in both the design and painting of the mural. “It was really lovely to see how everybody blended in,” said Boots.
Side by Side
Joajo Esteban, an art consultant for the project was there during one exchange that perfectly exemplified the blending. “There was a young boy, who came from an intellectual disability group, painting with another girl for quite a long time, about an hour and a half or two hours” he said.
Sharing a Laugh
“And after a while the boy asks the girl ‘so do you have any disability?’ And the girl replies ‘No, not that I’m aware of … for now.’” Esteban continued, “We all laughed, it was the most natural thing ever.”
“At that moment,” he said, “the fact that he had a disability was irrelevant because we were all painting together. And that was really nice. In fact that is what breaks taboos. And breaking those taboos and making the hospital more inviting was an important aspect of the entire project.”
In 2010, the mental health hospital joined forces with a local general hospital and started to care for the elderly, people dealing with grief, and people in the criminal justice system as well. That restructuring also opened up the parks of the health care center to the public.
“Inside, is what people really should see,” said local artist Juan Gurira. “Here in the street you only see the wall, behind it is the reality.” But the mural acts as an invitation that goes both ways, with residents of the health center also being invited to enter the town.
Point of Pride
When people “go out for a walk, they’ll remember this day,” Sánchez said. “It’s going to influence their lives.” And according to at least one local resident, a man named Gil, the mural is gorgeous. “Now, when I come and see the wall properly painted, it’s like walking down the Passeig de Gràcia,” he said, referencing one of Barcelona’s famously beautiful avenues.
Interestingly, this wouldn’t be the first time that art would be connected to the presence of the mental health institution. Pieces of modern art that are on display in the garden of Sant Joan De Déu Healthcare Park, which encompasses the mental health hospital, were worked on by renowned architect Antoni Gaudí.