The portraits of 99 people could have been taken off the walls of the family living room. Perhaps they were. They are mothers, fathers, children, teenagers, grandmothers, grandfathers, couples and military veterans.
The trick – and it’s not really a trick- is that these portraits dare all of us to admit that we cannot tell just by looking who is struggling with a mental health problem. Of the 99 portraits of sincere lovely people, 33 have some level of bipolar disorder, 33 are on the schizophrenia spectrum and the other 33 are people who love these all-too-human people living with some degree of mental illness.
There’s a general word in polite conversation that the stigma of mental health problems is disappearing. For those living under a shadow of mental health struggles, the stigma isn’t really gone. But this exhibit, “Many Faces of Our Mental Health” at the Boston Museum of Science that runs through Feb. 11 dares us to dig deeper into our preconceptions. Is it the mother or child who has the mental health issue? Which one of that beautiful loving couple may be struggling with depression? Do we really not have any stigma left, as we try to determine “which one?” It is them? Or are we “them”?
Could that handsome, healthy and disciplined-looking military veteran actually be falling apart emotionally under the weight of mental illness? “Yes,” the military aviator tells us in an open-hearted video. His life was successful, organized and fulfilling, and then he lost it all.
Many Faces of Our Mental Health
This bold exhibit on mental health at the Boston Museum of Science may catch some visitors off-guard if they only expected the more predictable exhibits on water, light, energy, planets and innovation. The mental health exhibit includes a large, intriguing suspended sculpture representing the DNA sequence, using small green sections to show where issues of mental illness might be centered.
The “99 Faces Project” includes paintings, and a bench to watch the videos of people telling how mental illness knocked them over, and then how, with understanding and sometimes medication, they stood back up and are living fulfilling lives.
The exhibit is a collaboration among the museum, artist Lynda Michaud Cutrell, psychiatrist-scientist Dr. Bruce Cohen and science journalist Rae Simpson.
The goal of the project, says Simpson, is to improve public understanding and change attitudes about serious mental illness.
The website about the “99 Faces Project” says: “A key to living well with any disability is not to be burdened with fear of stigma, but rather to have loving acceptance and inspiring role models. This project hopes to encourage those who are on their path to recovery, as well as their families.
No one is labeled, to reinforce that symptoms are not the person. These portraits honor all faces, regardless of the presence of a mental illness.
Diversity of the U.S. population is mirrored in 99 Faces, with ages ranging from three-years-old years old to people in their 90th year, and includes individuals from every walk of life, including veterans, PhDs, artists, lawyers, MBAs, CEOs and writers.”
Boston Museum of Science, “Many Face of Our Mental Health,” 2017
The 99 Faces Project, “Portraits without Labels,” 2017