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An exhibit opening Friday at Boston's Logan International Airport featuring larger-than life-photographs along with the personal stories of people who have struggled with mental illness is designed to shine light on a topic often kept in the dark.
"Deconstructing Stigma: A Change in Thought Can Change a Life" is part of a campaign by McLean Hospital aimed at changing the way mental illness is perceived and treated.
"There is so much suffering that goes untold and untreated because of the shame and stigma of mental illness," said Dr. Dost Ongur, chief of psychiatric disorders at McLean, a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychiatric hospital outside Boston.
"There is so much suffering that goes untold and untreated because of the shame and stigma of mental illness."Dr. Dost Ongur
The roughly 40 volunteers in the exhibit are from 16 to 76 years old. They are men and women. They are white, black and Asian. Most are ordinary people, some like comedian Howie Mandel, musician Rick Springfield, and NFL receiver Brandon Marshall, are celebrities.
The message is that mental illness can affect anyone.
One in five Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness in their lifetime, according to McLean. About 75 percent of people with mental illness report experiencing stigma. Surveys show that Americans don't want people with mental illness as neighbors, co-workers or family members.
Nathaniel Van Kirk, 30, was concerned that mental illness would hinder his career. Van Kirk, a clinical psychologist at McLean, is featured in the exhibit.
As a teenager, he struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder that drove him to wash his hands for hours a day.
He had reservations about telling his story so publicly, but eventually decided he had to.
"One of the big reasons I worked on this project was to shed light on some of the ways the stigma plays out," he said. "Just because you have a mental health diagnosis it in no way should limit your future."
Dimple Patel, 29, got involved for cultural reasons. She is of Indian descent, and says the shame of mental illness is greater in south Asian cultures than in western cultures.
Patel couldn't confront her mother's suicide for five years. She dealt with panic attacks while in college.
She finally took to Facebook last year to explain what happened to her mother.
"I was just tired of people spreading rumors," said Patel, who's pursing a doctorate in clinical psychology. Since then, other young Indian-Americans have reached out to her.
About 1,000 people a day will walk past the Logan exhibit. McLean wants to bring it to other airports or large public venues. The goal is to get 1 million people to either see the exhibit or go to the website.
Logan has hosted other exhibits, but nothing quite like this, said Thomas Glynn, CEO of the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Logan airport.
"This is cutting edge," he said. "I think people will find this compelling."
Ongur, the McLean doctor, said cancer used to be talked about in the same hushed tones as mental illness. Then in the 1960s, it became OK to talk about living with cancer, and that led to more money, more research and better treatment.
"We need a similar outcome for mental illness," he said.
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