Our Turn: New England exhibits national leadership on mental illness

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    The entrance to "Mental Health: Mind Matters," an exhibit was designed by the Science Museum of Minnesota. Sandra Piwko

  • A panel from the “Deconstructing Stigma” exhibit located in the walkway between Terminals B and C at Logan Airport. Alexandra Orlandi

Published: 5/12/2019 12:15:17 AM

What do the busiest airport in New England, the Science Center of Iowa and one of America’s largest retailers have in common? Each of them – accompanied by the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the Fuller Craft Museum in Massachusetts and Time magazine’s 2017 Instagram Photographer of the Year – are part of a breakthrough phenomenon that will transform society’s understanding and attitudes about mental health.

We have mental illness, or love someone who does. Our illness is real and treatable. Visitors to the “Mental Health: Mind Matters” exhibition, which ran in Des Moines, Iowa, this spring, are greeted by a wall of digital photographs of real people who have mental illness. Consistent with the demographic reality of mental illness, this wall looks like America. Various photos alight for a few seconds into short videos of individuals introducing themselves and declaring that they have mental illness, and that hope and help exists.

Exhibits about mental health are a nascent phenomenon, and “Mind Matters” is the largest investment into this type of exhibit in the United States. The most visited exhibit, “Deconstructing Stigma,” resides at Logan Airport in Boston. It features beautiful, color, floor-to-ceiling photographs of 30 people – at work, at home or at play – who experience mental illness and have found resilience. Real illness. Real recovery.

The graceful courage of real people with mental illness to put their faces forward is truly historic. But, what else is so phenomenal about mental health exhibitions? At a basic level, the genius of these exhibits is their physicality. Creativity has transformed the emotional and unspoken into an environment where the unseen can become seen and experienced. “Mind Matters” features one exhibit wherein visitors experience, through the projection of radio speakers, the sensation of “hearing voices” and will be able to momentarily feel the confusion and suffering that accompanies schizophrenia. Real suffering.

The facts about mental health in the United States are widely known. Roughly one in five Americans experience mental illness each year. Seventy percent of youth in juvenile justice systems live with at least one mental illness and so do 26% of homeless adults staying in shelters. Estimates indicate that the United States loses nearly $105 billion in productivity and $200 billion in earnings annually due to mental illness. Yet, data does not create understanding – this is the work of exhibits.

Mental health exhibits do indeed provide some factual information. Yet, that is not their primary focus. Like the “Many Faces of Our Mental Health” exhibit that ran at the Museum of Science in Boston in 2017, these exhibitions aim for deeper learning.

Christine Reich of MOS-Boston explains the goal of her exhibit was not to fill visitors with information. Instead, the goal was to change visitor “affect and feeling” – helping those who experience mental illness to feel belonging and fullness of identity, and helping others develop empathy. The “99 Faces” project, a portion of the “Many Faces” exhibit, is now on display at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. “99 Faces” demonstrates that emotions and experience create understanding. Real understanding.

A health issue cannot be addressed unless a vocabulary exists to describe its symptoms. Exhibits provide words for a topic that has been swept under the rug for centuries, leaving our collective vocabulary under-developed. This linguistic feat is explained well by the developers of the “My Mother’s Keeper” exhibit in New Jersey who described one goal of their exhibit was to “allow space for language to emerge” so dialogue can occur. Families and children who visit mental health exhibits can be seen having dialogue. Real dialogue.

“Mind Matters” was created in Finland and adapted for North America by the Science Museum of Minnesota in partnership with the Minnesota chapter of NAMI and Prairie Care, a behavioral health provider. Given the inadequacy of traditional funding in mental health care, developing mental health literacy through this type of social entrepreneurship yields the possibility that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Perhaps this is why the human resources department at a Minnesota-based retailer, one of America’s largest, has demonstrated interest in “Mind Matters.” Prevention requires understanding.

Real people. Real illness. Real dialogue. Real understanding. A possibility now exists to utilize a constellation of exhibits about mental health – perhaps via a National Museum of Mental Health – to revolutionize understanding, prevention and wellness nationally, all while unlocking economic benefits and advancing human dignity. Real progress.

(Paul M. Piwko teaches at Assumption College, where Alexandra Orlandi is a senior psychology major. In November, their business model for a virtual National Museum of Mental Health was presented at the New England Psychological Association.)

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