How to Deconstruct the Stigma of Mental Illness

Common perception of mental illness

When you think of mental illness, is this what you see? by Jennifer Mathis CC by 2.0

Deconstructing Stigma

Travelers passing through Boston’s Logan International Airport this winter may add a few items to their carry-on bags, thanks to a public awareness campaign entitled Deconstructing Stigma: A Change in Thought Can Change a Life. In addition to their clothes and toiletries, travelers could be tucking into their luggage a change in perspective, some insight, and a new understanding of mental illness.

Created by McLean Hospital in partnership with several other mental health organizations, Deconstructing Stigma was unveiled in December 2016. Covering the 235-foot long hallway between Terminals B and C are a series of oversized prints featuring photographs and stories of people living with mental illness. The goal of the project is to create conversations about mental health issues and to address the stigma that isolates people and prevents them from getting treatment.

The Faces of Mental Illness

Among the 30-plus people who volunteered to be in the campaign, there are artists, high-schoolers, athletes, mental health professionals, men, women, parents, and senior citizens. Their stories of experiencing mental illness include living with bipolar disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, anxiety, and depression.

Many of the people featured share similar stories of experiencing symptoms at a young age and suffering for years without diagnosis or effective treatment. Joe, 33, recounts having trouble sleeping as a child. During college, he began a mix of medication for anxiety and depression that worked for a time, but led to a vicious cycle of depression, more sleep problems, and detox.

Staring out of the installation are a few well-known faces as well. Howie Mandel has been famously open about his OCD and his deep aversion to shaking people’s hands for fear of germs. Actor and1980’s rock icon Rick Springfield shares his story of debilitating depression. His struggles with mental illness caused him to walk away from riches and fame for several years to concentrate on his health.

The story of Darryl McDaniels, the DMC in Run-DMC, chronicles his path from depression and anxiety to the substance abuse that he used to try to mask his symptoms. Brandon Marshall of the New York Jets was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and spent three months at McLean hospital to receive treatment. He later started PROJECT 375, a foundation that advocates and raises money for mental health research and programs. Brandon wears the color green to raise awareness of mental health issues and so people with mental illness will know, “I am like them and they are like me.”

Why Go Public?

Why would anyone agree to have their photos and their stories displayed publicly, when so many people fear being stigmatized by their mental illness? A common theme among the participants is their desire to break down the sense of isolation and fear that often accompanies mental illness. Despite a history of attempting suicide at age 17, when Jessika, 34, developed postpartum depression, she hesitated to get help and suffered in silence. She worried that news of her illness would affect people’s perception of her and her husband. Eventually, she was hospitalized for treatment. Now, she hopes that that her story can be a help to others.

Participants spoke of wanting to dismantle stigma and shame. Abby, 20, “hopes that speaking about her own story will help dampen the misconceptions and harsh judgments some people have about mental illness.” Suffering from severe anxiety and selectively mute during childhood, Maria, 28, believes “the more we talk about mental illness, the more we will reduce the stigma that surrounds it.”

Project volunteers also expressed a deep desire to reach out to others who suffer and to give them hope that their illness can respond to treatment. “This issue is too important to keep quiet,” says Dimple, 29, who lost her mother to suicide and spoke of the particular challenges in discussing mental illness in her South Asian culture. On one poster, Amy, 56, exhorts people to reach out for help. “You can feel better. You will feel better.”

And a Bit of Wisdom from DMC...

Rapper Darryl McDaniels may have summed up the purpose of the exhibit best when he addressed those gathered for the opening of the exhibit. He remarked that when people viewed the exhibit they would realize one of two things: that they knew someone with a similar story or that they recognize themselves in the story. McDaniels ended by saying, the exhibit would, “remove the guilt and shame, and then it’s going to remove the pain.”