FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Sometimes all it takes is a little help from your friends, which Duane Koyawena proved when he asked his artist friends to help him paint the walls at the Behavioral Health Unit at Flagstaff Medical Center.
As the unit was being remodeled in December, staff had to remove anything that could be used by a patient to hurt themselves — that included the wire and strings that held up the paintings on the walls.
Koyawena, who works in the unit himself as a mental health technician, said yes immediately when asked if he and his friends could make the institutional walls have more color and meaning for the patients who need to spend time there.
He enlisted the help of Baje Whitethorne Sr., Landis Bahe and Mural Joe to set about making the walls brighter and more welcoming with a series of murals.
But beyond aesthetic pleasures, Koyawena, the artists and the staff believe in the power of art to heal.
Kim Alexander, Northern Arizona Healthcare Director of Behavioral Services, said many of the patients, several of whom come from the Navajo and Hopi reservations, enjoy art even as they are struggling, and art helps them reconnect to themselves.
“It was really important that we had something to inspire them,” Alexander said. “Something that’s healing and inspirational for them to look at.”
Patients are admitted for depression, suicidal ideation anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and many other mental health disorders disorders.
Alexander said for all patients, even psychotic ones, the art on the walls can be distracting in a good way.
“It’s a healthy distraction with a therapeutic value,” Alexander said.
Bonny Block-Lutterloh, who is a registered charge nurse, has been at FMC for seven years and in the behavioral health field of nursing for 12 years.
She said she likes how the art aids patients during mental health crises; patients cannot always express themselves in words, but sometimes they are able to express themselves through art images.
“I really think different colors bring hope,” Block-Lutterloh said. “The murals we have on our wall, especially since we had such great artists come out from the Hopi (and Navajo) community. It really shows the togetherness of different cultural experiences. The murals stand for different things.”
Block-Lutterloh said to have artists from Native American communities paint the walls helps the patients because many come from those same communities themselves.
“As a six-foot-tall white woman, I do not have a grasp of what Native American culture is,” she said. “And I feel like having those images on the wall, it maintains a connection that I couldn’t do on my own.”
Block-Lutterloh is on unit three days a week for 12 hours working with adolescents and adults. The artwork draws her into the halls, too.
“I want to go out in the hall,” she said. “I want to look. I see something new every time I go out and I get stuck just staring at it.”
She said she has been looking at Landis Bahe’s painting a lot.
I like the hummingbird,” she said. “I look down the hall and see the Hopi sun. I feel like it makes it not feel like an institution. I think the stigma of mental health, that we’re putting people in cages when they’re having a crisis is just so wrong. So the murals make it a nicer environment, like a professional environment, that’s not just a hallway, it’s got a little gallery feel to it and that’s super cool.”