“He’s the best advocate we’ve ever come across”

Artist Joshua Ramirez confronted his own mental illness; now he teaches educators about the issue

Joshua Ramirez, advocate and Trojan, photographed outside working in the USC Roski sculpture yard. He is using a power tool, wearing a face shield, and sparks are flying from his tool as he is working on a rock.
Joshua Ramirez works in the USC Roski sculpture yard. (USC photo courtesy of Gus Ruelas)

When Joshua Ramirez was in middle school, teachers didn’t understand his learning disabilities. An avid reader, he had trouble with other skills, such as counting money. Teachers made him sit by himself in the classroom and considered him a lost cause.

So how did this stigmatized boy turn into the accomplished artist who’s receiving a degree from the USC Roski School of Art and Design? And how did he become a nearly straight-A student who combined schoolwork with a remarkable record of volunteer service?

It was pure grit and a willingness to confront and acknowledge his mental illness.

Suffering in silence

At 18, Ramirez was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder and dyslexia. At the time, his parents did not believe in psychiatry or medication, so he suffered in silence until a major depression set in midway through his first semester at community college.

What followed was a decade-long effort to figure out what medications worked for him.

His journey to get a degree took nearly as long — eight years — primarily because money was scarce. This first-generation college student spent five years at Citrus College in Glendora, where he juggled classes with jobs — as many as three at a time. His tuition worries eased when he transferred to USC, where he received a full ride, courtesy of the McNair Scholars Program, the USC Latino Alumni Association and the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund.

“When I got in, I was super grateful. The teachers here are phenomenal,” he said, mentioning his sculpture teacher, Patrick Jackson, in particular.

Aptitude for art

At Citrus, he discovered an aptitude for art, received key encouragement from a history teacher and began volunteering with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Michael Fay, the former president of the group’s Pomona Valley chapter, heard Ramirez speak at a Citrus event and recruited him on the spot to speak at teacher seminars Fay organizes throughout Los Angeles.

“He’s the best advocate we’ve ever come across,” Fay said. “He’s a man on a mission to educate teachers about how to deal with children with brain disorders. He speaks freely about his illness and he connects with people, who then ask sensitive questions.”

For the past five years, Fay estimates that Ramirez has volunteered to speak at several dozen of the two and four-hour seminars.

Lending a hand

But that’s just one of Ramirez’s selfless efforts. He has installed artwork at the USC Catholic Center, mentored at-risk youth through the Monrovia Unified School District and taught a painting class at Tri-City Mental Health Center in Pomona. He and friends have passed out sandwiches on L.A.’s Skid Row, and he’s photographed its residents. It’s not merely an art project, he explained.

“I like to take pictures of people who need a voice,” he said. “I feel photography has the ability to do that.”

That attitude is consistent with how USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences Professor Suzanne Hudson sees Ramirez. Hudson was his adviser on a project researching the history of art therapy for mental illness.

“He’s an optimist in the face of unfortunate circumstances,” she said, “and believes that art can make a difference in the world.

“He has an urgency to learn that’s very, very rare,” she continued. “He’s one of the most exceptional undergraduates I’ve encountered at USC.”

Where there’s a will …

Ramirez credits willpower and perseverance.

“I’d have panic attacks in class and just sit there and fight through it. I’ve had headaches, nosebleeds, anxiety attacks, insomnia, be really hungry and then not hungry at all. Sometimes you need to tell yourself you are doing a good job and just to hang in there.

“I know I can never cure what has been handed me,” he said, but I see my disabilities as blessings, as they allow me to understand life on a deeper level and gives me a purpose to help others.”

The grad-to-be hopes to find a job in the art field (he’s been interning at a West Hollywood gallery) and eventually earn an MFA in sculpture. A recent good omen was his success at an exhibition at dA Center for the Arts in Pomona. Within the first hour, he sold his first painting, for $695.

By Allison Engel

>Read the original story on USC News.