‘Deconstructing Stigma’ Through Faces and Voices

You’re walking through a large metropolitan airport and you notice a colorful 235-foot long display of striking 8-foot tall photographs of people of all different ages and backgrounds. Who are these people?

You’re curious to know more. As you slow down and take a closer look, you notice the text accompanying the photographs. You quickly discover that all of the people are talking about their personal experiences with mental illness.

Mental illness?! In a public airport? You read a little more. You find inspirational quotes, and story after story of how these individuals are learning to live with and manage various mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, trauma, eating disorder, substance abuse, and borderline personality disorder.

This innovative public education project is called “Deconstructing Stigma: A Change in Thought Can Change a Life.” It was unveiled at Boston’s Logan International Airport in December, 2016. The award-winning project was developed at McLean Hospital, a leading psychiatric facility affiliated with Harvard Medical School, along with support from several other mental health organizations.

According to Scott L. Rauch, MD, McLean’s President, the Deconstructing Stigma project “boldly challenges the misconceptions regarding mental illness.” Rauch goes on to say that “essentially every one of us is affected by mental illness in some way, whether by living with an illness ourselves or by grappling with its consequences in a friend or loved one.”

Fortunately you don’t have to visit the Boston Airport to see the stories and photographs from Deconstructing Stigma, as they all appear on the project website.

As you read the stories, you will be struck not only by the significant challenges these individuals have faced, but also by the courage and resilience they have shown by openly sharing their personal struggles and victories.

It’s also compelling to see how the people represent different ages, occupations, and ethnicities. (And yes, there are even a couple of celebrities.) Their photos drive home the point that mental illness is “invisible,” as you can’t tell someone has it just by looking at them.

Another central theme, as the title of the project indicates, is that of the stigma around mental illnesses. I’ve written extensively on the subject of stigma in several previous posts. Unfortunately, the negative attitudes, beliefs and behaviors surrounding persons with mental illnesses are still far too prevalent.

Significant numbers of adults report an unwillingness to have close interactions (becoming friends, working closely, marrying into the family, socializing) with people with mental illness. I and others have also argued that discrimination is a more accurate and descriptive term than stigma.

The project website has several helpful resource pages, including links to several mental health support organizations, facts about mental illness and the experience of stigma, suggested readings on various illnesses, links to brief screening measures for several mental health concerns, and  a glossary of common terms related to mental illnesses and treatment approaches.

The Deconstructing Stigma project is an exemplar of an effective and engaging public education program to raise awareness about mental illness and to combat the pervasive negativity and discrimination surrounding these conditions. Kudos to all who were involved for bringing this wonderful project to fruition.

Loyal readers of this blog will know that I also feature dozens of personal accounts of individuals who have been affected by mental health concerns in my “Stories of Hope” series. Please check it out, and if you would like to share your story, please let me know via my contact page.

Here’s a question: What else can be done to reduce stigma and discrimination about mental illness? Please leave a comment. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Finally, if you enjoyed this article, please share it with a friend. Thanks!

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