What do a wildlife advocate, musician, fitness instructor, actor, athlete, and artist have in common? All have been affected by mental illness and its stigma, and all are brought together in a beautiful and compelling new photographic exhibit that debuted on Thursday, May 20, 2021, at Burlington International Airport (BTV) in Burlington, Vermont.
The exhibit is part of an international public awareness campaign sponsored by the Boston area’s McLean Hospital, in collaboration with BTV and several mental health advocacy groups, to change the way mental illness is perceived.
Deconstructing Stigma: Changing Attitudes About Mental Health features compelling portraits of courageous people who have shared their stories with the hope of changing how people with psychiatric illness are viewed.
“Shame and stigma are still far too prevalent when it comes to psychiatric disease and can contribute to the fear and isolation many people feel. Deconstructing Stigma is an unprecedented effort to spark conversation about behavioral and mental health,” said Scott L. Rauch, MD, president and psychiatrist in chief of McLean Hospital, the largest psychiatric affiliate of Harvard Medical School.
Connecting Through Stories
Vermont native Lise, whose story is shared at BTV, openly talks about her family history of mental illness as well as her own experience living with bipolar disorder. Although she was always told to keep mental illness in the family a secret, Lise now recognizes that there is no shame in living with a mental illness.
“My father swore us to secrecy about my sister’s schizophrenia diagnosis. Later, my father died by suicide,” explained Lise. “The resulting toxic shame from in and outside of my family impacted my development and played a part in sabotaging my chance for a happy and well-adjusted childhood and teen years. Without stigma, much of what happened would have been easier to bear.”
Lise, like so many of the more than 200 volunteers in the Deconstructing Stigma campaign from around the world, have stepped forward to share their stories because they want other people to know they are not alone and to recognize that living with a mental illness is not something to be ashamed of.
Sean Shinnock has lived with mental illnesses since his teens and was the first person to volunteer for the campaign.
“I want to help others who struggle with mental illness know that they are not alone,” said Sean, now 40, who now spearheads the Deconstructing Stigma campaign for McLean Hospital. “I still struggle some days, but I am confident enough, hopeful enough, inspired enough, and motivated enough to be a part of this life.”
Mental Health Affects Everyone
The local faces highlighted in the BTV exhibit are joined by some highly recognizable celebrities who have also bravely joined the Deconstructing Stigma campaign, including actor and comedian Howie Mandel.
Howie has lived with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) for as long as he can remember and for years, struggled with rituals and self-taught coping skills just to have a productive life.
Howie publicly disclosed his illness several years ago and has since leveraged his celebrity to encourage other people to recognize that mental illness is something everyone grapples with at some point in their life.
“I’m no different than everybody else. These people—the people with mental health issues—are everyone. If they don’t have a mental illness or a need for mental health care now, they will. Everyone needs or could use mental health care sometime in their lives.”
Blending celebrities, such as former football star Brandon Marshall and Howie Mandel, with everyday people is a key component of the campaign because mental illness does not affect only one demographic or group.
Consider that one in five Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness this year.
As the United States begins to open up more following the pandemic, mental health experts predict that more people than ever before will suffer from depression, anxiety, substance use, and trauma. According to a recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than half of U.S. adults said their mental health has been “negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the coronavirus.”
“We all recognize that mental health is a critical component to our overall health and well-being,” said Gene Richards, director of aviation at BTV. “However, through this exhibit, those of us at BTV are making this topic a priority. As a strong community voice and an organization that cares deeply about Vermonters and those who visit our state, we want to make sure that no one ever feels like they can’t ask for help. We hope this exhibit will be inspirational and comforting to those who see it.”
The exhibit is located at the main entrance to the airport from the parking garage.
In addition to partnering with BTV, McLean Hospital collaborated with the Howard Center, University of Vermont Medical Center, Vermont Suicide Prevention Center, the Center for Health and Learning, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Vermont.
To learn more about mental health resources in Vermont, visit the Deconstructing Stigma website.
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