‘Deconstructing Stigma’ project unveiled at airport

By Phyllis Hanlon
March 1st, 2017

When Nathaniel Van Kirk, Ph.D., administrative director of research at McLean Hospital’s OCD Institute, learned of the “Deconstructing Stigma: A Change in Thought Can Change a Life” project, he was quick to volunteer. Diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, he hopes his story will help break down stereotypes, misinformation and stigma through this public education campaign.

Early in 2016, McLean partnered with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the International OCD Foundation, the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health, the National Alliance on Mental Health and Project 375 to produce this unique project, which was unveiled on Dec. 9, 2016 at Logan International Airport.

According to Van Kirk, McLean issued a call for volunteers willing to tell their stories in early 2016. “I was excited to see how many people responded,” he said, reporting that the project involved more than 40 active participants.

The display – eight-foot photos with narrative – stretches between Terminals B and C at Logan Airport.

The stories cover a range of diagnoses and mental health challenges including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, eating and substance abuse disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder and others.

“It’s unique in how many different walks of life and trajectories are represented,” said Van Kirk. Diverse individuals, from athletes, teachers and students to writers, actors and business owners, are represented.

“This shows that even with a mental health diagnosis, you can strive for and do anything. We hope [the project] will challenge those in the mental health field, those who suffer with mental illness and the world as a whole to think about treatment, recovery and continue to advance the field,” he said.

Jeff Szymanski, Ph.D., executive director of the International OCD Foundation, applauds McLean for “building strategic partnerships” with various organizations to create this project.

“It’s brilliant to put this at the airport. There is an opportunity to impact not just Boston but a national and international audience,” he said. “The best way to reduce stigma is to tell the story and how you tell it is important. You have to put a face to the story. The imagery and installation is perfect. McLean did their homework before launching the project.”

MassPort CEO Thomas Glynn, Ph.D., said the project exceeded his expectations. “The artwork was more dramatic than I expected. That’s part of the success of the project. The strategy is to mainstream people with mental health challenges rather than [use] alternative approaches from the past,” he said. “This is colorful, cheerful and gives positive affirmations.”

Feedback from passengers and employees has been positive, according to Glynn. “Some people read about the project and drive over to see it. We try as one of our policies to be an airport for all,” he said.

Logan Airport hosts two projects annually with children with autism and their families where staff explains the process involved with flying. “This project builds on that. It’s public education and the airport is a public agency and should be available to everybody.”

Van Kirk said, “Through sharing stories, we hope to help others feel more confident about seeking help as they move toward the life they want to live. Just because you have a mental health challenge, it doesn’t mean you can’t strive for goals, even when the road is difficult.”

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