Valentine’s day. Love. Mental Health. These three might seem an unlikely trio, but every February, our Columbia-WHO Center for Global Mental Health hosts an evening called “Love is EleMental.” Last week at Joe’s Pub in NYC, almost 200 people gathered to celebrate the arts, build community awareness about mental health, and raise funds to support our training and service programs.
Inspired by the iconic symbol of the 11-structure labyrinth, February 13 was a journey through an extraordinary musical program that captured – in the notes, tempo, rhythm, and lyrics – the highs and lows, the pains and joys of life and love.
The Labyrinth. Labyrinths vary in detail but share some key common features. In all cases, you just have to find the entrance and begin. There is only one way in, and there is only one way out. You cannot get lost even though you don’t know exactly where you are going or what the next turn will be. The experience of walking the labyrinth is different for everyone because each of us brings unique hopes, dreams, history, and longings of the soul. Walking the labyrinth calms people in the throes of life transitions. It stirs creativity for the artist in us. It is a source of solace and peace for those in deep sorrow. It is as basic as putting one foot in front of the other and as spiritual as we allow. It’s a powerful metaphor for all of us in terms of the dynamic nature of our mental health and our potential encounters with mental illness along the journey of life.
Defiance and Denial. The two pieces that opened the evening captured the common expressions of defiance and denial that are often part of our initial response to mental health struggles. We stand our ground and say, “No way. Not me. I’ll show you.” Or maybe we try to ignore our troubles. We deny that we feel hurt. We pretend that our drinking is not out of hand. We say everything is okay when we are vibrating with anxiety inside. We see defiance and denial across a range of mental health conditions such as eating disorders, alcohol misuse, anxiety, or depression. Performed by the evening’s Artistic Director Elaine Kwon and written by Ukrainian pianist and composer, Nikolai Kapustin, defiance was on full display in the first piece, Toccatina, Op. 40, No. 3. Although Kapustin trained in classical music, he loved Jazz. In the age of Stalin, jazz was denounced as a supreme expression of capitalist decadence. To listen to it, let alone play it, was an act of defiance. The second piece, performed by award-winning Broadway artist Janine DiVita, Back in Business – Colored Lights Medley, by Stephen Sondheim, put a fun spin on the absurdity of denial.
Hope. Along the labyrinth of life, we all face moments of reckoning. For some defiance and denial give way relatively quickly; for others it takes longer. But when defiance and denial wear thin, we begin to see the truth. Truth that was always there; we just weren’t ready to see it. When we wrestle with what’s real, we move to solid ground and seeds of hope are planted. Health and healing begin with hope. Hope protects us against anxiety, depression, and substance use. Hope is one of the strongest predictors of good outcomes in therapy. Lose Hope, Game Over. Hopelessness is one of the strongest predictors of suicide. Singing a capella, Nicholas Ryan Gant delivered the spiritual Deep River, capturing the extraordinary resilience and hopefulness of the African American community in the face of centuries of prejudice and injustice in our country.
Love. So where do we get the energy to journey the labyrinth of life? In our loneliest hours, in times of grief, in the days when ill health is gaining on us, and in the sweet moments of victories and joyful celebrations, our lives are nourished by the love we share. When we pause to consider moments of healing in our lives, it is likely that someone who cared, someone who was kind, someone who loved us is part of the story. In fact, when we ask people about their experience of psychotherapy, what prompted them to seek help, and what helped promote recovery, there’s always someone and some act of love that is part of the story. On piano and vocals, Erich Bergen performed Elton John’s Your Song and filled the room with sighs and good feelings that come with love songs like this one. “How wonderful life is, while you’re in the world.”
Surrender. At a certain point along the labyrinth, we discover that attempting to squash feelings we would rather not have is exhausting. We realize that efforts to control our journey with denial can only distance us from our truth. We learn that health and healing come not from control but from embrace. An embrace of all that is and an acceptance of what we can control and what is out of our control. We reach our center when we fully surrender and in that moment, paradoxically, we gain control – not of outcomes, but rather control of our intent and our actions. It is a lifelong wrestling act that Leonard Cohen put to music in his sorrowful, magnificent, and soulful, Hallelujah. Sung by Nicholas Ryan Gant, accompanied by Elaine Kwon on piano, the evening’s performance ranks as one of the best ever versions of this widely-covered classic.
Defiance, denial, hope, love, and surrender were joined by loneliness, fear, doubt, anger, empowerment and gratitude over the course of the evening’s program. We are enormously grateful to co-chairs, Janet Montag and Kylie Schuyler and the entire benefit committee, Artist Director, Elaine Kwon, Master of Ceremonies, Peter Hermann, and all our performers – Janine DiVIta, Nicholas Ryan Gant, Erich Bergen, Anat Malkin, Gjilberta Lucaj, and Freestyle Love Supreme: Anthony Veneziale, Stephanie Rae, and Chris Sullivan – for their artistry and generosity is taking us through a labyrinth of music and emotions. A journey to be savored.