Portland Jetport exhibit confronts stigma around mental illness

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PORTLAND — A photo exhibit at Portland International Jetport hopes to erase the stigma around mental illness by depicting people who are dealing with a variety of issues, from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder to severe anxiety.

The “I Am More” exhibit will remain in place through September, which is National Suicide Prevention Month. It was created and sponsored by the Yellow Tulip Project, and includes nearly two dozen black-and-white portraits designed to show that mental illness can strike anyone, but also that people are more than their illness.

“The goal of ‘I Am More’ (is) to eliminate expectations of what mental health looks like and (to) begin to normalize the conversations around mental health disorders,” a Yellow Tulip Project press release said. “Mental illness touches every age, ethnic group and gender. … By normalizing conversations about mental illness, we want people to feel less alone and realize that there is always hope and help.”

Julia Hansen, a Falmouth teenager and Waynflete School graduate, founded the Yellow Tulip Project two years ago after two of her closest friends took their own lives within months of each other.

Hansen was determined to do something positive to bring awareness to mental illness and on the Yellow Tulip Project website says “We need to talk about mental illness, not suffer alone or feel ashamed. … Our goal is to smash the stigma that surrounds mental illness. … We want everyone to know that hope actually does happen. We do this through outreach and advocacy work and by coming together as a community.”

Her mother, Suzanne Fox, said the “I Am More” exhibit is based on a similar project at Boston Logan International Airport a couple of years ago, which was called “Deconstructing Stigma.”

Last winter, Fox said, the Yellow Tulip Project put out a call for models on its Facebook page and several “brave individuals” responded. The Portland airport only had room for 11 portraits, but the original “I Am More” exhibit consists of 22 photos in all and there is also a digital version.

She said each model was asked to create six “I am” statements to accompany their portrait,  about their mental health status and other aspects of their lives.

Fox said the exhibit is important because it shows there is no way to see mental illness and “we have no idea what people are experiencing. We want to change that. We know that it is the stigma and shame that far too often keep people from reaching out for help.”

The hope, she said, is that schools, community groups and others, including formal galleries or museums, would be willing to host the “I Am More” exhibit. “We want (the portraits) to be seen, not sit in storage,” Fox said.

Creighton Taylor, 60, of Falmouth, is one of the models. She said she wanted to be part of the project because the “stigma is deeply embedded in our society through the words we use and the way we inaccurately perceive those who have mental illnesses.

“I (also) appreciated the impact this exhibition could have and volunteered to be part of it because I want to do all I can to ease the burden of stigma (that) those who have serious and chronic mental illnesses face.”

Taylor has major depression – characterized by a persistent feeling of sadness or a lack of interest in outside stimuli – and also has a child with schizophrenia. “So I speak from experience,” she said.

Her hope is that people viewing the portraits “realize that mental illness can happen to anyone, and with this increased awareness they will think about it with more understanding and compassion.”

Taylor said she also hopes “those who are themselves affected by some form of mental illness, (will be inspired) to reach out for help so they don’t suffer in silence (or) out of shame, fear, or feeling that it is a sign of weakness to seek treatment.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Black-and-white portraits at the Portland International Jetport are part of an exhibit called “I Am More,” aimed at reducing the stigma around mental illness.

Creighton Taylor, left, is a Falmouth resident who has major depression. She said her hope is that the “I Am More” exhibit will lead to “more understanding and compassion” about mental illness.

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