Christopher Murray works on his watercolor “Sundrop.” Photo by Brenda Neth

Christopher Murray works on his watercolor “Sundrop.” Photo by Brenda Neth

Since 2002, Circle of Friends has been providing art, drama, music, photography and writing classes to adults who have severe mental illness. The nonprofit has recruited more than 100 interns from area colleges in the last decade to instruct one or more of their 17 classes throughout North and Central Seattle. 

Some instructors, like John Morris, are clients who also facilitate classes. At present, nearly 170 clients attend weekly sessions, learning digital photography, portrait drawing, theatrical improvisation, creative writing or singing.

“We provide a service because we recognize arts are empowering, creative and fun, and it makes people’s lives better,” Morris said. “Everyone is an artist; we have to learn that in ourselves.” 

Morris, who designs the website for Circle of Friends and also serves as a board member, is working toward becoming a professional guitarist and is also involved with multimedia graphic design. He works part-time as a custodian at the University Christian Church, where the Circle of Friends office is located.

Morris said that Circle of Friends is a client-run organization where many of its board members also deal with mental illness. Morris, 43, said he has been dealing with his own self-stigma, as well as the stigma from others, because of his schizophrenia, which was diagnosed when he was 18.

“Those that have a biological disorder shouldn’t be blamed for it. It’s like blaming someone for having cancer,” he said.

“We want to change the dialogue from mental illness to ‘mental wellness,’” added founder Carolyn Hale.

Both Morris and Hale said that there is a growing interest and support for Circle of Friends. Still, the stigma around mental illness leaves much work to be done. 

According to the Circle of Friends website, approximately one in five adults have diagnosable mental illness, with less than 33 percent of those adults receiving professional treatment. 

Hale said she has found that many ethnic groups hold a great stigma against mental illness and that some do not even have a word for “mental illness” in their vocabulary. Because of this, people of those ethnic groups cannot even get help or acknowledgement of their needs. 

For Morris, even the interactions between health-care provider and mental health patient can hold prejudice, with the client being made to feel inferior to the provider.

Hale emphasized that the sessions with Circle of Friends is not therapy, but it is therapeutic for some because the activities get them involved with others in their community.

“They come in with the issues, and we respond,” she said.


Advancing awareness

For Hale, her need for advocacy toward mental illness started because of her son, who had been diagnosed with a mental illness. She first became involved with the National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI) serving as a family-to-family trainer. Her early involvement also found her helping organize the Stride for Stability fund-raising walk. 

This accomplished, Hale began to think about how art classes might be offered at the various sites where the severely mentally ill were living. She was encouraged by other members to consider starting her own nonprofit organization offering arts-and-crafts activities, and thus, Circle of Friends began.

The official first art party was launched during Christmas, when the leaders of the Keystone assisted-living facility in Wallingford recognized that many of the residents wanted to give Christmas gifts but had no money to buy them. Several artists stepped forward to help residents create greeting cards and painted T-shirts and neck scarves as presents. 

The Raging Grannies, of which Hale is a member, brought its music and singing to the party, and the event was pegged a success.

Since then, classes have burgeoned at Cascade Hall in the Northgate area, Emerald House in the Central Area and Wallingford House and the Keystone living facility in Wallingford. 

Hale said that there is little funding in the state for actual classroom or community space in the residences, let alone classes. At Emerald House, art classes are held in a well-lit dining room, where residents gather for weekly house meetings, as well as share their meals. Participants start a casual afternoon talking with art instructors and going through art books by such great names as Georgia O’Keeffe and Rembrandt. 

For Josie Boyden, one of two art instructors at Emerald House, the opportunity to teach art has brought her awareness to what it takes to be an excellent instructor.

“Teachers need to be curious, flexible and compassionate when doing this. Just making art can be therapeutic if it takes one’s mind off troubles,” she said.

Hale said that no formal training is required for interns to teach the classes, but they are encouraged to simply be a friend, learning the name of the residents. 

She said many of the interns are involved in psychology or social work degrees, and heard about the opportunity to teach through professors or counselors at the various colleges.

Program director Meg Strader started working for Circle of Friends in January 2011. Strader is a psychology and English major at the University of Washington who plans on earning a master’s degree in social work.

Strader said she wants to get students more involved with writing group dialogues, with each student writing a page and performing their work. She also wants to collaborate with professional improvisational groups in Seattle, once there is a larger drama group from Circle of Friends.


Getting out there

Strader, along with writing class facilitator Matthew Summers Smith and founder Carolyn Hale, performed with drama student Kareem Khaliq at a recent Arts Crush event in Queen Anne. 

John Morris opened the event with several guitar pieces, while artist Michael Morris (no relation) drew figure drawings. Playwright Tracy Vicory Rosenquest debuted her 45-minute play “Shark,” which she wrote as a result of her studies about mental illness through the Circle of Friends. 

Hale said that there have been other art and photography exhibits at various coffee shops throughout the city, with some of the pieces being sold.

Upcoming events for Circle of Friends include the Stampede Against Stigma marathon in June 2013. Hale said that the race will include relays where each group shouts out a slogan that combats stigma, such as “Make a friend, not a label,” while carrying the Olympic “torch” — a brain that is dressed with eyes, nose and ears. The race will begin in Seattle and end in Spokane. 

At present, Hale said Circle of Friends is looking for catchy slogans that can be used in the relay race. Anti-stigma slogans will then be voted for on-line, and the most popular ones used by the relay groups will garner prizes. 

For more information about Circle of Friends, call (206) 525-0648 or visit the website at To comment on this story, write to