A history of stigma
About 20 kilometers outside of Barcelona, Spain lays a picturesque community called Sant Boi. Surrounded by a beautiful mountain range in the Parque forestal del Montbaig nature reserve, the town is famous for two things: its artistic heritage and the large mental health hospital in the centre of the town.
The hospital, rich in history and founded in 1855, continues to influence how people view the community.
“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.’ This is what we want to change,” said local artist, Dani Sánchez.
A Sant Boi local, Nien Boots, described local interactions between residents and patients that resulted in both “funny situations or uncomfortable ones.”
He gives the example of one patient who regularly tries to seduce women.
“Other residents are in need of social interaction. They will sit down with you at the terrace or try to talk with you on the street,” he said. “Everybody gets a bit lonely sometimes.”
Stigma around mental health persists, but Sánchez, like some others in the community, view the hospital as a regular part of daily life.
“It’s really common to see a person with mental health issues wandering around the neighborhood,” he said. It’s also a very personal issue to Sánchez; two of his family members have spent time in this hospital.
While there are some in the community, like Sánchez, that are accepting of the hospital in the community and its heritage, the area is still very divided. In an effort to bring the town together, in early July 40 young artists from across Europe came together to create a mural to challenge local perceptions of mental health. The project was led by Boots and brought together many local organizations, including Torrent d’ART, a group that fights prejudice using art and culture as its weapons of choice.
Mental health and art
There is a deep connection between art and the presence of the mental health institution in Sant Boi.
As legend has it, renowned architect, Antoni Gaudí, worked on the modern art pieces on display in the garden of Sant Joan De Déu Healthcare Park, which surrounds the mental health hospital.
Between 1903 and 1912 the hospital hosted workshops for bricklaying, and patients often participated in the work. In recent years, however, a wall separating the hospital from the rest of the community began to deteriorate and was being covered with unwanted, and unattractive, graffiti.
Sant Boi resident, Alejandro Gil stated the wall was “in awful condition. I felt really bad when I saw the wall so full of dirt.”
The new mural project aimed to not only refurbish the wall, but to challenge the taboos around mental health in the community. Along with 10 young locals, Boots invited 10 young people from each of Norway, the United Kingdom and Sweden to work alongside them and envision the worst image possible to paint on the hospital wall. Creating this, they could initiate a frank discussion on stigma around mental health.
After many ideas were thrown around, the participants settled on the theme of carpets. Sánchez said, “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. So this idea poses a question, a sort of enigma, and invites the neighbours to walk into the hospital.”
The artists were also influenced by residents of the health care center, crediting them in helping shape both the design and construction of the mural. “It was really lovely to see how everybody blended in,” said Boots.
Gil, a local resident, explained that the new mural makes him happy, “Now, when I come and see the wall properly painted, it’s like walking down the Passeig de Gràcia,” he said – a cherished avenue in Barcelona.
Welcome goes both ways
The new mural is hoped to encourage people to “enter and have a look.”
Juan Gurira, a local artist, believes the collaborative process of creating the mural helped establish a better relationship between the people of Sant Boi and the people who live in the hospital. “Inside, is what people really should see. Here in the street you only see the wall, behind it is the reality,” he said.
That invitation is reciprocated to residents of the center, who are invited to enter the town.
When people “go out for a walk, they’ll remember this day,” said Sanchez. “It’s going to influence their lives.”