PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island native Jeff Sparr is helping people around the world cope with a mental illness he has been battling for most of his life: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Sparr, 55, is the co-founder of the PeaceLove movement, a group that seeks to “empower individuals and communities to share their mental health stories and discover new tools for mental wellness.”
May is Mental Health Awareness month, and according to the World Health Organization, 1 in 40 adults and 1 in 100 children suffer from OCD.
“Mental illness is a crafty opponent,” Sparr said. “It comes after what you value most in your life. It’s a hard illness, it’s a daily struggle.”
Like many struggling with mental illness, it took time for Sparr to understand what he was dealing with.
“Basically I thought I was going crazy,” he said. “My mind was being taken over by these terrible, intrusive thoughts and I didn’t know what the hell was happening to me.”
Sparr said after seeking treatment, he was quickly diagnosed with OCD.
“Basically for the last 35 years, I have fought a debilitating illness that impacts me every day of my life,” Sparr said.
Talking about OCD is something Sparr does a lot of now. He travels the country and the world to share his story with others in the hopes of removing the stigma around mental illness.
Sparr said talking helps, but not as much as painting does.
“The rest of my story you just can’t make up,” Sparr said. “I’m coming home from work, you know, almost 25 years ago, and someone tells me that painting might be good for me. You’ve seen Forrest Gump and how he ran, right? Well, you’re looking at the Forrest Gump of painting.”
In 2009, Sparr and his cousin thought it would be a good idea to bring their painting supplies to a local children’s’ psychiatric hospital.
Sparr said he saw how painting gave kids peace of mind. At that moment, PeaceLove was born.
“You know I got this crazy idea that maybe I could make mental illness cool, you know?” Sparr said. “Not cool to have it, because I can assure you it’s not cool to have. But cool to support it. I simply dreamed that maybe we could create programming someday to help millions of people find peace of mind just like it has for me.”
Sparr said when he started the program, he was surprised there weren’t others like it already.
“When we started PeaceLove I saw this window of opportunity,” Sparr said. “I was amazed that nobody had done it before. I thought it was possible. You know, I dream big. It doesn’t cost any more. So we went for it.”
The week of May 7, Sparr will continue to talk about his life. New Orleans Saints Quarterback Drew Brees has invited him to a charity event in Texas. Sparr will do a live painting of Brees while they’re on stage together, and the painting will be auctioned off for charity.