In October 2015, Alcatraz Island National Park hosted an art exhibit called Prisoners of Age—it was a thought-provoking, haunting, honest, and engaging look at the justice system as told through the stories of aging prisoners. The exhibit gave the viewer an opportunity to connect with prisoners through compelling photographs and succinct stories, which evoked feelings of empathy and compassion for individuals who would normally be overlooked by most.
Inspired by the insightful blend of art and storytelling of Prisoners of Age, the creators of Deconstructing Stigma felt that telling the personal stories of people affected by mental illness—also a segment of the American population that is often overlooked—coupled with larger-than-life portraits, would provoke conversations about the misconceptions surrounding mental illness and the stigma related to those affected by it.
With that premise in mind, we reached out to the McLean Hospital internal community asking for recommendations of people who might be brave enough to share their stories with the world. Our goal was to develop a pilot campaign with a series of eight to 12 poster-sized pieces. Within a few days, five individuals had already volunteered and we were eager to reach our goal of at least eight participants. Then, one night—forgetting the power of social media—we posted on the McLean Facebook page asking for additional volunteers to tell their stories as part of a new mental health public awareness campaign. To our surprise, within 24 hours, hundreds of people responded—many of whom had no affiliation with McLean Hospital.
Despite being overwhelmed by the response, the team spearheading the campaign responded to each and every person. After approximately 300 hours of phone conversations with potential volunteers, it was clear that our pilot project had become something much more than we ever expected. Overnight, it had amassed more than 100 volunteers from across the country—including one person from England—and it was immediately clear that our volunteers were determined to make a difference in the lives of other people affected by mental illness.
And so were we.
Today, we have more than 200 volunteers in our campaign, hailing from all inhabited continents and we continue to enroll more with the hopes of spreading our message of resilience and hope even further.
That is how Deconstructing Stigma: Changing Attitudes About Mental Health was born. With support from McLean Hospital, Boston Logan, and other partners, in May 2016, we began pulling the project together in earnest. To date, here is a glimpse of what went into Deconstructing Stigma:
- 310 hours of photography sessions with participants
- 35,000 miles traveled by the team for photography sessions and interviews
- 45,000 words written
- 2,000 hours of design work
- Countless memorable experiences and unyielding admiration for each participant