A public display of people affected by mental illness?

That’s what Boston’s Logan Airport is doing, with McLean Hospital and the help of 30 people who are telling their stories on 8-foot-tall photographs that run the length of the hallway between Terminals B and C on the airport’s Departures level.

Photographer Patrick O’Connor captured the images for the exhibit, “Deconstructing Stigma: A Change in Thought Can Change a Life.” The idea is to show what mental illness looks like, and what it looks like is us. And in fact, that’s what comedian Howie Mandel’s poster says: “I’m no different than you.”

Women. Men. Teens. Older adults. Racial, economic, and geographic diversity. Mental illness looks like Brandon, a 32-year-old football player diagnosed with borderline personality disorder; Molly, a 20-year-old daughter of a Naval officer, who has generalized anxiety disorder; and Darryl, the 52-year-old founding member of the legendary rap group Run-DMC, who has lived with substance abuse. Plus others, like Mandel, who describes his experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder. The exhibit breaks apart outdated ideas of what it looks like to live with those illnesses.

Many of those featured have been treated at McLean Hospital outside of Boston, which is the largest psychiatric affiliate of Harvard Medical School. Others have sought treatment in other settings, like campus health centers or emergency rooms. Others cope through creative expression. The subjects have been photographed doing their hobbies, with their family members, in their homes, or in their favorite places.

Just walking by, you wouldn’t know that each person in the photographs is affected by mental illness—and that’s exactly the point.

McLean Hospital developed the project in partnership with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the International OCD Foundation, the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and PROJECT 375.

When the initial call for stories went out, hundreds responded. Many were people who had experiences at McLean, but many were not. Each was motivated to share their story, according to the project website, in order to “provoke conversations about the misconceptions surrounding mental illness and the stigma related to those affected by it.”

The personal story has profound power to cut through stigma and misconception. Many can think of a time when their assumptions—about a neighborhood, or a religion—were shattered when meeting someone from that neighborhood, or who practices that religion. To get to “meet” people who’ve lived with and are living with mental illness can be a learning experience, stretching our minds to think about the experience in new ways.

For those of us not heading to Boston Logan, the project's website features the stories in the exhibit, and there’s a forthcoming book.

Copyright 2016 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

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What Does Mental Illness Look Like? is a reply by Elana Premack Sandler L.C.S.W., M.P.H

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