Kathy Bates

“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation.”                 

- Glenn Close

I chose this quote from Glenn Close because her portrait was the first photograph I recognized at the 99 Faces Project sponsored by PAIMI Advisory Council and showing at YMCA in Concord, NH. The exhibit features 33 individuals on the schizophrenia spectrum, 33 on the bipolar spectrum, and 33 that love and support them. Since the photographs do not identify who experiences mental illness, you can’t make assumptions about the lived experience of the people in them. Lynda Cutrell, the artist who created the project says “99 Faces challenges our views of someone living with the symptoms of a mental illness and informs with a true and corrected view. 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.”

Cutrell began this project after some people that she cared about were diagnosed with mental illness. Unable to find any positive information about people with mental illness, she wanted to give people hope by sharing success and recovery stories. She used her artistic talents and curiosity about the science of mental illness to educate herself as well as the public, and the 99 Faces project was born.

There are four basic components of mental illness: depression, mania, anxiety, and psychosis. We all experience each of these symptoms from time to time. Mental illness, like any other disability, is not constant—it changes depending on the events of the day. No one experiences symptoms of schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder all the time. During interviews, Cutrell asked each person how they achieved recovery. She said that some of the people found therapy and medication to be helpful. More interestingly, nearly everyone talked about finding a purpose and having at least one person in their life that always had their back. That’s just what everyone needs.

It is hard to explain the exhibit, because the pictures were so full of personality. There’s nothing behind the people but a stark black background, which allows you to really see their personalities because there’s no distraction. These are extraordinary people who could be your neighbors. My friend and colleague, Dellie Champagne, was the tour guide and shared some amazing stories of a few of the people in the portraits. There was a 90-year-old decorated World War II vet, a Presidential candidate and his wife, an Olympic Gold Medalist, a judge, a famous actress, and six people that have their PhDs and many other success stories. It felt like we were meeting the people in the pictures, and when you get to know them, the stigma slowly fades away. In other words, as the viewer, I felt connected to each person.

Besides the incredible photography, there were two sculptures and some really interesting paintings that helped me see mental illness in a whole new way. There were also three paintings of skin cells depicting the difference between the cells of someone who has schizophrenia, bi-polar, and someone without mental illness. The skin cells looked totally different proving that these disorders are systemic and not just having to do with the mind. An enormous model that hung from the ceiling of a DNA strand illustrated perfectly how everyone’s DNA is different and therefore, everyone is an individual.

I think that everyone who visits the 99 Faces exhibit will probably take away something different. One thing I know will be crystal clear is that people are people. A label of mental illness doesn’t have to limit anyone’s potential, especially when they have the unconditional love and support from a family member or friend.

From Where I Sit...

Here are a few of the latest statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health Disorders, part of the National Institutes of Health:

  • An estimated 26% of Americans ages 18 and older - about 1 in 4 adults - have a diagnosable mental disorder.
  • Many people have more than one mental disorder at a given time. Depressive illnesses tend to co-occur with substance abuse and anxiety disorders.
  • Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in adolescents and adults ages 15 to 24.

I don’t understand. With statistics like these, why isn’t there more representation of mental health disorders on TV? We know that mental health and physical health are linked. Yet the medical providers still don’t treat the patient’s mind and body as a whole. I understand the stigma of disability, but mental health issues are in a different ballpark all together. One thing I know for sure is that most people need to be educated about mental illness. So in the next two blog posts I will be exploring some relatively new projects that were created to assist people who experience mental illness.

(Photo Credit: Louise Michaud, 99 Faces Project)