The fine art of healing: Creative coping & behavioral health

Artist runs fine arts class, helps rehab mental health patients at Sanford Bemidji

artist paints flowers in creative coping class

Not everyone who heals people is a doctor or a nurse.

Michael Miller of Bemidji, Minnesota, is one of those healers. Every week he runs a Creative Coping class as part of Sanford’s behavioral health program, supporting and healing those in need through fine arts.

A unique service

“Art has been such a healing thing for him,” said Jessica Hublit, adult rehabilitative mental health service supervisor. “That’s kind of where we started it from. Then he just kind of created an environment where people can come and feel safe and be able to learn and practice art in a supportive area.”

The Creative Coping class started as part of a state-sponsored adult rehabilitative mental health services program (or ARMHS). The intention is to support individuals who have severe persistent mental illness, and teach them skills that may allow them to function better in life.

Some patients may have had a traumatic brain injury. Others may have suffered after long-term drug or alcohol abuse. But anyone who is assessed and referred to the program is eligible to join.

“That’s one thing that I feel like Sanford behavioral health is really doing a good job at trying to do is really integrate medical and mental health, because we’re a holistic human being,” said Hublit.

“To think that what’s going on with us physically isn’t affecting us mentally or vice versa is really kind of doing a disservice. So to look at a whole person and say, ‘we’re gonna help you as a whole person to be healthy,’ I think is kind of the mission.”

A true artist and healer

That’s where Miller enters the story.

“I came in as peer support here in Sanford and there was a girl that was doing crafts,” said Miller, a peer support recovery advocate. “So she asked me to come in and do caricatures because I did caricatures during the summer and traveled all over the state doing caricatures.”

When the leader of that group left, Miller took over and transformed the class into something he was more comfortable teaching: fine arts.

“I loved it,” Miller said. “It was just like, you know, this was what I was meant to do.”

Miller encourages his group to create anything that inspires them. Paintings are the most common project, but his current group also does bead work, and one patient even creates her own miniature animals. They listen to music, eat pizza, and create art, all while enjoying each other’s company.

“They’re doing something they don’t think they can do. It builds up their self-esteem and gives them confidence and helps them to reach out,” Miller said.

While building confidence, they’re building connections, said Hublit.

“I’ve seen individuals flourish … and feeling like they can express themselves where a lot of people in the past maybe have been more withdrawn or isolated, especially with COVID and other things,” she said. “So it’s given them an opportunity to connect and be able to express themselves and be inspirations to one another, which is really neat.”

Miller explained coping goes beyond calming.

“I think for a lot of people it’s deeper. For me it’s deeper,” Miller said. “For some people it’s an escape, for peace. Time slows down. Everything else vanishes. And you’re just in that project for the time, which is a great coping skill. And the satisfaction and self-esteem you get from it just builds.”

Empathy and shared experiences

Miller shares a lot with his group, including his own struggles. He says he’s able to relate to where members of the group have been in their life, and where they’re headed, because he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and struggled with substance abuse issues himself. He’s been sober now for 17 years.

“This was my way of giving back to people, because of how much better it is for somebody who’s gone through drug and alcohol and mental health issues to deal with people who have the same problem and deal with it with something that you love, which is art.”

The Creative Coping group doesn’t just create art for themselves anymore. Some of their pieces are being brought over to the psychiatry department at Sanford in Bemidji. Now their work will be showcased for others to enjoy as well.

Still, no matter the project, the skill level or the medium, nothing compares to the camaraderie of the group itself and the bond they have with their leader.

“I’ve asked them, you know, ‘What does it mean for you to be seeing me?’ And one client said, ‘It gives me a reason to wake up and it puts meaning in my life.’ And that brought a tear to my eye. So that means I’m doing something good,” said Miller.

Miller shares his passion with a small group in need. He’s an artist. And a true healer.

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Posted In Behavioral Health, Bemidji, Chemical Dependency, People & Culture

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