It’s important to discuss the stigmatization of the mentally ill when talking about mental health. According to a 2002 study about the impact of stigma on people with mental illness, mentally ill people are “robbed of the opportunities that define a quality life: good jobs, safe housing, satisfactory health care, and affiliation with a diverse group of people.” Alarmingly, “43.7 million” Americans struggle with a mental health condition each year, and unfortunately, only one out of five will receive the treatment they need, according to Mental Health America (MHA).

So how can people combat this stigmatization? It starts with education and creating a dialogue.

Here’s how Boston’s McLean Hospital is leading by example.

In October of 2015, McLean’s Senior Director of Public Affairs and Communications, Adriana Bobinchock, was visiting Alcatraz Island National Park in California. The park was hosting an art exhibit called “Prisoners of Age,” which Bobinchock referred to as “a thought-provoking, haunting, honest, and engaging look at the justice system as told through the stories of aging prisoners.”

Overcome with compassion and empathy for the prisoners featured in the exhibit – people “who would normally be overlooked by most” – Bobinchock and her future co-founder formed the idea of the project they would come to call Deconstructing Stigma. Deconstructing Stigma is a Boston-based mental health campaign that aims “to get people to reconsider how they perceive mental illness and to recognize that the biased portrayal of those with psychiatric disorders in pop culture is inaccurate.” Using larger than life portraits coupled with personal narratives, Deconstructing Stigma was first unveiled at Logan Airport.

Photo courtesy McLean Hospital

Bobinchock explained that she “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, Bobinchock pitched the idea to President and Psychiatrist In Chief, Dr. Scott Rauch, who received the idea gladly. He then approached Logan Airport. Luckily, “airport staff enthusiastically embraced the idea,” and Bobinchock and her co-founder were off and running. Bobinchock said that “from getting the green light to move forward to installing at Logan Airport, the development of the campaign took 10 months” and hundreds of volunteers. Bobinchock said her team was “determined to make a difference in the lives of other people affected by mental illness. And so were we.”

Fortunately, Bobinchock said that, overall, feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive.” She receives regular emails and phone calls from people who have seen the campaign and want to thank her for her work. She also noted that she’s proud because she and her team have “been recognized by national organizations for moving the conversation about mental health forward.”

Deconstructing Stigma was presented with the Lifesaver Award from the Boston chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a Gold Stevie for Healthcare Campaign of the Year from the American Business Association, and a Bronze Bell from the Publicity Club of New England for Non-Profit Campaign of the Year. In response to these accolades, Bobinchock said, “We could have never predicted the level of response that we have received for Deconstructing Stigma, but we are grateful for it.”

Now, as Deconstructing Stigma prepares for the second phase of its campaign and more venues are hoping to exhibit their work, Bobinchock explained she wants “to continue to spark conversation about mental health in unexpected places—like airports and public venues.” Though she’s already achieved a number of her goals, she noted, “there is so much more work that can and needs to be done” and revealed that one of the biggest goals of Deconstructing Stigma is to “install this campaign in as many locations across the United States” as possible.

Bobinchock's advice for those currently struggling with mental illness or feeling stigmatized is to “confide in a close friend or loved one, or seek out a peer support group that will allow you to talk freely about how you feel.” She added that “There are way more people out there who want to support you than you may realize” and emphasized that everyone is affected by mental illness whether they know it or not.

To learn more about Deconstructing Stigma, or to participate in future phases of the campaign, visit https://deconstructingstigma.org/.