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In viewing the 99 Faces Project—a diverse collection of portraits featuring people impacted by mental illness—it’s indistinguishable as to who are on the schizophrenia spectrum, who are on the bipolar spectrum, and who are the ones who love them. The diversity in age, gender, and ethnicity of the 33 participants in each category helps raise awareness that mental illness can affect anyone at any time.
The project was created by artist Lynda Cutrell, whose close family member was diagnosed with mental illness eight years ago. Through her experiences as an advocate and in meeting the many people who live with schizophrenia and bipolar symptoms, she wants to help reduce stigma and show the public that mental illness can impact people from all different backgrounds. Meanwhile, her project helps reinforce hope and possibility for individuals and families affected by these illnesses.
Hope and possibility, however, were unimaginable upon first hearing her family member’s diagnosis. Despite worrisome and progressive behavioral changes, she and her family never imagined what they would hear from clinicians.
“My experience, like so many families, was that there was nothing to prepare me for what happens emotionally or financially with a diagnosis like this,” said Cutrell. “It’s a pretty devastating thing—for both the individual who has the onset of this illness, as well as the family.”
Soon after the diagnosis, Cutrell found there were few community resources available for families who were facing mental illness of a loved one for the first time. It was through McLean Hospital that she learned the latest research about schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
“I went to a lecture about what was happening with mental illness research in the laboratory. The imagery of those cells in the lab was remarkable,” she said. “I was brought to tears, as it helped me understand this illness was systemic and that it wasn’t something we caused. It was visual recognition of a real impact on life, and at the same time, a relief to see it.”
That lecture, hosted by the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) Cambridge-Middlesex, was given by Bruce M. Cohen, MD, PhD, director of McLean’s Program for Neuropsychiatric Research, the founding director of the McLean Brain Imaging Center, and president and psychiatrist in chief emeritus of McLean Hospital from 1997 to 2005.
Cohen suggested that Cutrell become involved in NAMI. She welcomed the opportunity and served as president of NAMI Massachusetts for two years and also served on the organization’s national board of directors in Washington, DC.
Through her advocacy work, Cutrell met hundreds of individuals and families and embarked upon her own mission to learn about their experiences with mental illness. She wanted to know more not only about their problems, but also about those who were in recovery and doing well.
“I asked people about their experiences in their own recovery and what I found out is that it’s not the end of life as we know it—it’s the beginning of a different kind of life,” she said. “I met a young woman who got her master’s degree from Harvard after her diagnosis. I began to meet many individuals who went on to get their master’s degree, and some who went on to get their PhDs and had become doctors.”
“I thought, ‘how come I never heard this was possible?’ What I was facing initially was that there was complete limitation of productivity, love, life in general. No one told me anything different, nothing hopeful. I began to try and figure out what was most important to recovery and what I learned is that it was love and family,” she said, “but sometimes families give up because the prognosis sounds so final. Many were telling me the diagnosis would mean some form of institutional living.”
“One of the greatest comforts to me,” said Cutrell, “was to find out that it’s family that will ultimately be one of the most important components of recovery. There’s medication and treatment, but family and close friends are what primarily support the individual—it’s their foundation and what sustains them.”
“I wanted to communicate to other families what I learned and I wanted to do it quickly,” said Cutrell, who had spent 25 years in investments and was an adjunct professor at Boston College teaching marketing in the MBA program. She had left her job around the same time her family member’s illness was developing, went to art school, and learned a different way of communicating: visual art.
“What I realized,” she said, “is that imagery communicates instantly. And it can show people recovery and to not think of this diagnosis as the end.”
As a visual artist, Cutrell’s website features an intersection of her art and the science that depicts various images of the commonness of mental illness as well as the cellular, brain imaging, and genetic research.
Cutrell and many other advocates believe that the media shapes the public’s perception of what it’s like for people with a mental illness and to be afraid of them and their behaviors. “The public is only exposed to a media construct and they paint that picture so poorly,” she said. “It also affects the people who have the illnesses, so I wanted to show the situation in a different vein—not only for the newly-diagnosed families but also try to shape—if I could—what the public should realize is possible.”
“I shuffled up all the portraits in the 99 Faces Project so you can’t tell who has what—but what you can tell is that they’re laughing and that they’re having loving relationships,” said Cutrell. “There are three million people in the United States who suffer from schizophrenia and not everyone ends up like the couple of dozen we read about in the newspaper. Recovery depends on families, community, and the resources and encouragement they receive.”
In fact, Cutrell pointed out that the portrait of Mark Vonnegut, MD, son of the late American novelist Kurt Vonnegut, is featured in the project. He has a successful pediatric practice and is the author of two books. He will be the keynote speaker at McLean’s Board of Visitors meeting on May 4.
“My goal of 99 Faces,” she said, “is that when a young adult finds out they have a diagnosis and it’s not going to go away—that they need to know they can still have a productive life filled with loving relationships, and their families need to know the importance of being and staying involved. I believe we can begin to change the public’s perception.”
Cutrell will begin to realize that goal when the 99 Faces Project is displayed at the Boston Museum of Science this fall. The idea was proposed by Cohen after he gave a talk at the museum last spring.
“Ultimately the value of 99 Faces is engagement and information,” said Cohen, “and this is true of much of Lynda’s art as well—the idea is first to engage people—once you engage them with the photographs and the art, you educate them about the realities of mental illness. What the art stresses is the humanity, the humanness of people with psychiatric disorders.
“The museum sees the educational value of this exhibit,” said Cohen. “What we are all really after is breaking down stigma, getting people to be more empathic. In the exhibit we’ll be using various media—videos, music, text, and a timeline—so that when people visit the exhibit they will learn a lot more about mental illnesses as medical disorders, including what we know about them, what can be done for patients and families, and what the promise of the future is in research and treatment.”
Cohen and Cutrell are also working on a book based on the lives of several of the individuals in the 99 Faces Project. Cutrell is writing about the journey of each person; Cohen is describing the science of what is happening to the individual.