PAUSE ON THE CORNER of Division Street by the Northfield Public Library in the heart of this historic southern Minnesota river town, and you will find yourself next to a massive rusting sculpture.
The public piece calls for more than a cursory glance at an abstract person reaching skyward. The art calls for passersby to stop, read the inscription at the base of the sculpture and then contemplate the deeper meaning of “Waist Deep.”
This temporary downtown art installation, created by 15 Northfield High School students and three professional artists through the Young Sculptors Project and funded with a $10,000 grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council, creates a community-wide public focus on mental health issues. After two years, the sculpture will be permanently placed in the high school courtyard sculpture garden.
Like any art, “Waist Deep” is open to personal interpretation. The signage notes, though, that the sculpture is meant to support those struggling with mental health in the community, of needing and receiving help from caring others.
As I looked at the layered and fractured pieces comprising the sculpted person, I saw beyond the arm reaching for help and the lowered arm with curved hand clawing the earth. Both represent, in my eyes, darkness and light, hopelessness and hope. Mental illness leaves a person feeling incomplete and broken. Fractured. Trying to hang on. Reaching.
I photographed the sculpture on a recent weekend morning under rainy, then partially cloudy and sunny skies, not unlike the ever-changing skies of mental illness. Sometimes pouring. Sometimes parting. Sometimes shining with hope.
As the sculpture name “Waist Deep” and art itself suggest, those dealing with mental health issues can feel waist deep in the water of the disease—flailing, perhaps unable to swim, battling the overpowering waves.
We have a responsibility to throw a life-line. How? First, start seeing mental illness like any other illness. Call it what it is—a brain disease. End the stigma. Someone suffering from depression, for example, can no more wish away or snap out of depression than a diabetic can cure his/her disease by thinking positive thoughts. Educate yourself.
Support those who are waist deep. Show compassion. They need care, love, encouragement, support just as much, for example, as cancer patients.
Be there, too, for the caregivers, who feel alone, who work behind the scenes to secure often elusive professional care for their loved ones. In Minnesota the shortage of mental health care professionals and treatment centers, especially outside the Twin Cities metro area, is documented in media report after media report. It’s a crisis situation. Telling someone in a mental health crisis they need to wait six weeks plus for an appointment with a psychiatrist or a psychologist is absurd and unacceptable. We wouldn’t say that to someone experiencing a heart attack. They would die without immediate care. Those waist deep do sometimes. Every day. And it shouldn’t be that way.
I applaud the 15 NHS students and the three artists who created the public art piece in Northfield. Projects like “Waist Deep” shine the spotlight on a disease which has too long been hidden, shoved in the dark corner of silence.
FYI: I’d encourage you to read the book Regular & Decaf by Minnesotan Andrew D. Gadtke and published by Risen Man Publishing, LLC. It features conversations between Gadtke and his friend, both of whom have brain diseases. It’s a powerful, insightful and unforgettable read.