Montreal Science Centre exhibits leadership on mental health

What do the Montreal Science Centre, the busiest airport in New England, and one of North America’s largest retailers have in common? Each of them — accompanied by a college library, a society of crafters, and Time magazine’s 2017 Instagram Photographer of the Year — are part of a breakthrough phenomenon that will transform society’s understanding and attitudes about mental health.

We have mental illness, or love someone who does. Our illness is real and treatable. Visitors to the ‘Mental Health: Mind Matters’ exhibition — which is now on display in Montreal as part of a three-part program on overall health — are greeted by a wall of digital photographs of real people who have mental illness. Consistent with the demographic reality of mental illness, this wall looks like Canada. Various photos alight for a few seconds into short videos of individuals introducing themselves and declaring that they have mental illness, and that hope and help exists.

Exhibits about mental health are a nascent phenomenon, and Mind Matters is the largest investment into this type of exhibit in North America. The most visited exhibit, Deconstructing Stigma, resides at Logan Airport in Boston. It features beautiful, colour, floor-to-ceiling photographs of 30 people — at work, at home or at play — who experience mental illness and have found resilience.

Real illness. Real recovery.

The graceful courage of real people with mental illness to put their faces forward is truly historic. But, what else is so phenomenal about exhibitions like Mind Matters? At a basic level, the genius of these exhibits is their physicality. Creativity has transformed the emotional and unspoken into an environment where the unseen can become seen and experienced. Mind Matters features one exhibit wherein visitors experience, through the projection of radio speakers, the sensation of “hearing voices” and will be able to momentarily feel the confusion and suffering that accompanies schizophrenia. Real suffering.

The facts about mental health in Canada speak for themselves. Roughly one in five Canadians experience mental illness each year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-24 year-old Canadians. By age 40, nearly 50 per cent of the population will have experienced some form of mental illness. Yet, data does not create understanding. This is the work of exhibits.

Mind Matters does provide some factual information. Yet, that is not its primary focus. Like the Many Faces of Our Mental Health exhibit which ran at the Museum of Science in Boston in 2017, Mind Matters aims for deeper learning. Christine Reich of MOS-Boston explains the goal of her exhibit was not to fill visitors with information. Instead, the goal was to change visitor “affect and feeling” – helping those who experience mental illness to feel belonging and fullness of identity, and helping others develop empathy. Mind Matters demonstrates that emotions and experience create understanding. Real understanding.

A health issue cannot be addressed unless a vocabulary exists to describe its symptoms. Mind Matters provides words for a topic that has been swept under the rug for centuries, leaving our collective vocabulary under-developed. The linguistic feat accomplished by Mind Matters is explained well by the developers of the My Mother’s Keeper exhibit in New Jersey who described one goal of their exhibit was to “allow space for language to emerge” so dialogue can occur. Families and children who visit Mind Matters can be seen having dialogue. Real dialogue.

Mind Matters was created in Finland and adapted for North America by the Science Museum of Minnesota in partnership with a mental health advocacy organization and a behavioral health provider. Given the inadequacy of traditional funding in mental health care, developing mental health literacy through this type of social entrepreneurship yields the possibility that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Perhaps this is why the human resources department at a Minnesota-based retailer, one of North America’s largest, has demonstrated interest in Mind Matters. Prevention requires understanding.

Real people. Real illness. Real dialogue. Real understanding. A possibility now exists to utilize a constellation of exhibits like Mind Matters to revolutionize understanding, prevention and wellness, all while unlocking economic benefits and advancing human dignity. Real progress.

Paul M. Piwko teaches at Assumption College in Massachusetts where he and Alexandra Orlandi ’19 research exhibits about mental health. In November 2018, their business model for a virtual National Museum of Mental Health was presented at the New England Psychological Association.

—AB

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