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June 9, 2017 by Tamara Staples

Starting conversations that save lives

Artist Tamara Staples on the discussion panel “The Making of an Epidemic: Polypharmacy in the Treatment of Mental Health ” at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art. The panel discussion was the culmination of her installation exhibit “Side Effects May Include”.

Before my sister’s untimely death from an overdose of pharmaceuticals, I didn’t think much about pharmaceuticals  in any meaningful way. I’ve never dealt with serious illness. My sister was eccentric from an early age and no one thought much of it.  Of course, the labeling of mental illness had not yet come into play at that time.

We were adopted from separate families and when she met her birth family, she discovered that her father was bi-polar. He was taking Lexipro at the time, so she found a doctor who would prescribe the same. 

I don’t recall why she took that leap, but I do remember it being an odd choice, simply because there was no discussion of her mental health previous to this.  And so began her journey with pills, coupled with intense side effects 10 years prior to her death.

The pill regiment grew more complicated over the years until she was unable to work. The last time I visited with her, she no longer showed emotion, unusual for a person who laughed easily. Her eyes were vacant and she’d driven half way across the country to see me.

Near the end, she realized that the drugs had taken her to a dark place and took it upon herself to stop taking the medications all at once.  Immediately she felt happy (and what a joy it was to hear the voice of the sister I dearly missed), followed by a very steep depression.  I missed her call the night she hid in the kitchen to take her deadly cocktail, slipped into bed next to her husband and never woke up.

I knew the medication was effecting her but when she started saying she would take her own life, my thinking was that it was mental illness talking, not the medication.  Isn’t that what we all assume?

One corner of the exhibit “Side Effects May Include”.

As I began making the art, it was the reaction of the viewers that led me to thinking about the panel discussion. With so much talk of my sister’s situation, it was clear that many people had experienced the same fate.   When Executive Director of ICA San Jose, Cathy Kimball and I met, it was an immediate part of the conversation. The job of subversive art is to question the establishment.

From left: Yana Jacobs, Chief Development Officer at the Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health Care;  Kathy Forward, Executive Director at NAMI Santa Clara County; Shuyun David Lo, MD, San Jose State University Student Health Center; Dina Tyler, co-director of the Bay Area Mandala Project and co-founder of Bay Area Hearing Voices; artist Tamara Staples; Cathy Kimball, Executive Director of the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art.

Meeting the panelists and hearing their stories has been an education for me. This is a pervasive issue and I now believe that the medication is responsible for a large majority of unfortunate deaths among people whose systems are fragile to begin with.  I’m simply an artist who is here to serve as a reminder that someone suffered with mental challenges and was not helped by her doctors, the medications and a society that does not allow room for those of us with a colorful spirit. This is the story I am sharing and I hope to start many conversations.

Big thank you to Yana Jacobs with the Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health Care, for helping put together the panel and for the enormous support during the process.


Tamara Staples began her career as a prop stylist for print and television commercials. However, it was her fine art photography background that kept taking her behind the camera. As a photographer, her work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Time Out NY, New York Times, Men’s Journal, O Magazine, New York Magazine and Town and Country to name a few. Although busy with commercial assignments, she continues to work on personal projects. Her work has been featured on NPR’s This American Life and CNN. Tamara is the recipient of a NYFA Grant , PDN self promotion award, the Bronze award from the 2014 Royal Photographic Society and is a fellow of The Rauschenberg Residency. She lives and works in Brooklyn. See more of her work and contact her at

4 thoughts on “Starting conversations that save lives

  1. Sarah Smith says:

    Wow! Big kudos to you and FEMHC for this awesome artistic project. What a great contribution to our movement for more informed consent and most of all, for better choices and alternatives in the mental health system. Before my daughter’s entry into the mental health system, she was vibrant, creative, and artistic. Once she was heavily medicated (by force) the light seemed to leave her eyes. Thanks to the work of visionaries like FEMHC, I feel the paradigm of mental health care is starting to shift and my daughter is finding it easier to get the trauma based services she needs and slowly wean off these toxic substances that have quite honestly, created many more problems than they have solved. Keep up the good work! Your love for your sister shines through this exhibit!!

  2. Sharon Paskoff says:

    Tamara, I’m so sorry for the passing of your sister and the loss of your relationship, sharing family gatherings in the future and what psychiatric medication took away from you, your sister. My son after being medicated for over ten years in now in the process of coming off psychiatric medication. I dare to hope for his return to creativity, music, friends and family. Thank you for your article because his path is difficult right now slowly, carefully with professional help coming off medication. You have helped me carry on, continue the plan and support him coming off medication. I appreciate you speaking out and your art.

  3. Rita says:

    I lost my mom to drugs too. Your story is so important to tell. Thank you.

  4. Mathy milling downing says:

    Thank you for telling your story. My 12 year old daughter suffered the same fate, prescribed an antidepressant for test anxiety at school. At one point, she suffered from an adverse reaction to the drug and was hospitalized. In their infinite wisdom, the hospital gave her four times the amount of the same drug, then stopped all medications, and sent her home. She died by her own hand three days later. There had never been any suicidal.thoughts or tendencies ever. Ironically, my surviving daughter who was 14 at the time, began art therapy within the week. Through various art mediums, she was able to work through her pain and create her feelings when she could not put those thoughts into words. Art saved her life and made her whole again.

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