Making mental illness ‘cool’ PDF Print E-mail
By Nancy Kirsch
Friday, 06 January 2012 02:10
Jewish entrepreneurs determined to
change landscape
Jewish entrepreneurs determined to change landscape


One artist’s creation at Peace Love Studios /Nancy KirschOne artist’s creation at Peace Love Studios /Nancy KirschPAWTUCKET – Providence native Jeffrey Sparr frequently hears people say, “Are you crazy…trying to make mental illness cool?”

His response: “Yes, I am crazy – and I am going to make it cool!”

In a recent visit to Peace Love Studios on Pawtucket’s Main Street, Sparr, 48, said that many individuals embrace his desire to “create a positive symbol for mental illness.”

Just as heart health advocates embrace the “red campaign” and breast cancer survivors and their advocates wear pink ribbons, Sparr is determined to create “a symbol of hope and acceptance” for those with mental illness. And that’s where the organization comes into play: It invites people to experience the peace that he has found in painting. Until he was diagnosed at Butler Hospital many years ago with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), Sparr thought he “was going crazy.” He describes his OCD symptoms as analogous to the sheer terror someone might feel when his toddler disappears from view, even momentarily, in a crowded public venue. “I have that level of anxiety about something completely innocuous.”

Many people who didn’t understand, he said quietly, acted as if he could “just snap out of it.” His diagnosis brought Sparr, who praised the treatment he received from an OCD expert who practiced at Butler Hospital, some relief. “I caught a break in getting help.” Relief came, too, through painting. Desperate for solace, he took up a paintbrush, and after creating and selling holiday cards, he began to sell full-size paintings, sometimes for thousands of dollars.

The organization’s signature program, he said, is Paint4peace, which allows people to paint their interpretation of “peace and love.” The program, one that transcends socioeconomic class, has been taught to thousands of people – individuals in hospitals, at Boys and Girls clubs and at senior centers, as well as to chief executive officers and high school students.

While space constraints at the Pawtucket headquarters’ studio and at a new studio in Providence’s Dunkin’ Donuts Center (both leased properties) limit the number of people who can come to paint and draw, Peace Love Studios takes its message out to the community. To date, Peace Love Studios has touched more than 6,000 people, and approximately 80 organizations are on a waiting list, said Matthew Kaplan, co-founder and chief executive officer.

With some 26 percent of the U.S. population suffering from a diagnosable mental illness, the need is great, said Sparr. National data track Sparr’s assertion. The National Institute of Mental Health website, www.nimh.nih/gov, states: “Mental disorders are common in the United States, and in a given year approximately one quarter of adults are diagnosable for one or more disorders. While mental disorders are widespread in the population, the main burden of illness is concentrated among a much smaller proportion (about 6 percent, or 1 in 17) who suffer from a seriously debilitating mental illness.”

Sparr, Peace Love Studios’      co-founder and artist, is delighted that a Hallmark company, Angela Moore and Philip Stein have licensed the Peace Love logo for William Arthur cards, jewelry and watches, respectively. Before that, he said, “You [could] buy a card for your dog, but not for [someone like] me.”

While no one leaves Butler Hospital wearing a “mental hospital hat” promoting mental health, Sparr is confident that people will purchase commercial products bearing the Peace Love logo.

As Sparr showed this reporter the studio’s front entryway, decorated with dozens of tiles depicting interpretations of “peace and love,” he said, “One [image] alone is not powerful, but thousands of images are authentic; no one has ever done that before.”

Creating art brought Sparr relief from the pain of his OCD, which he calls “the worrier’s disease.” Sparr described the process as invigorating and offering a sense of control. “I can start and finish a canvas… and temporarily escape.”  While creative expression is not a panacea, he said, it’s a powerful piece of the recovery process.

After he and Kaplan, 33, now a Cranston resident, organized an art show of Sparr’s work that brought in $16,000, Sparr decided, “If art could help me, maybe it would help others.” Shortly thereafter, he and Kaplan showed up at Butler Hospital with a bag of art supplies.

A commercial venture

Relying on the wisdom of friends and advisors – and his own gut instincts – Sparr decided to answer the question that he’d long pondered: “Who am I to take this on?”

He credits his parents, Irwin and Gloria Sparr, with imparting strong Jewish values of giving back and helping others. “My parents are very giving people and often in a quiet way, which I respect,” said Sparr, who called their quiet tzedakah “admirable.”

“Perhaps God gave me these qualifications to create [this program],” he said, noting that only someone with business acumen, artistic ability and a mental illness could address the challenge of de-stigmatizing mental health issues through creative expression.

“If we were fully capitalized,” said Sparr, “we’d have 50 freestanding studios in 50 cities across the country.”

Kaplan hopes the program will be integrated into schools and hospitals. “It’s scaleable and has a high return on investment.”

Asked what keeps him up at night, Sparr said, “Money. Raising money for mental health is trickier than raising money for kids with cancer. When you see the impact you have and know that perhaps money is [the only obstacle]… it’s very frustrating.”

Neither Kaplan nor Sparr is drawing any income from this venture – yet.

Licensing fees will underwrite the cost of running the studios, training additional facilitators and taking the program to community groups free of charge.

The hybrid “social venture model” of a for-profit entity helping support a nonprofit appeals to Kaplan and Sparr, who want the organization to be self-sustainable. It’s historic, said Sparr, that the Peace Love Studios’ logo is part of  the Dunkin’ Donuts Convention Center’s marquee. It’s a “changing landscape.”

One hundred percent of the population knows someone [with a mental illness], said Kaplan, and anyone can paint. “We’re taking something invisible and trying to make it understood for all.”

Sparr added, “When you set out without a road map, someone will say, ‘You can’t do it.’ But I’m crazy – and I’m going to make being crazy cool.”

Visit or call 475-9778.


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