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Telling their stories: Photo exhibit battles stigma of mental illness

September 2021

Read the full article in the Telegram & Gazette

By Stephanie Jarvis Campbell

WHITINSVILLE – For the next several weeks, the Spaulding R. Aldrich Heritage Gallery at Alternatives’ Whitin Mill is home to a powerful exhibit, hosted by ValleyCAST, that aims to challenge perceptions of what mental illness “looks like” – that, despite the stigma, people are not defined by their diagnosis.

Titled “I Am More. Facing Stigma,” the exhibit is by The Yellow Tulip Project and is a collection of black-and-white gallery-size photographs, taken by Lissy Thomas, that tells the stories of those dealing with mental health issues. The models featured are parents, daughters, sons, friends, workers; they have hobbies and aspirations; they represent all ages and walks of life.

Benjamin, one of the models featured, says, “I am a husband. I am an inspiring doctor. I am battling depression. I am a runner. I am whole.”

Or, Thea, who is “a visionary. I am a mountaineer. I am recovering from an eating disorder. I am full of color. I am a dreamer.”

“As short as the words are, it really does tell a story,” said Ken Bates, president and CEO of Open Sky Community Services. “Being free to talk about it is such a big step. That’s really what our mission is – to make our community stronger so they can better support the people we serve.”

Created by Suzanne Fox, executive director of The Yellow Tulip Project, and her daughter Julia Hansen, the exhibit is on display through Oct. 8 at the gallery, located at 50 Douglas Road. An opening reception was held on Sept. 2, coupled with ValleyCAST’s summer concert series finale, featuring Changes in Latitude. The exhibit is a continuation of a collaboration between ValleyCAST – which is the arts and culture arm of Open Sky Community Services – and The Yellow Tulip Project; back in May, ValleyCAST hosted its first-ever Hope Day, unveiling a garden of yellow tulips at an event to promote Mental Health Awareness Month and to encourage deep conversations.

“I love this exhibit. It feels so intimate,” said Cristi Collari, director of Community Outreach for Open Sky Community Services. With National Suicide Prevention Week Sept. 5-11 and Mental Illness Awareness Week Oct. 3-9, she said the timing is perfect for ValleyCAST to display the “I Am More” exhibit. “It’s really powerful and an honor to have it here.”

The portraits, taken by Lissy Thomas, tell the stories of those dealing with mental health issues.

Collari added, “It’s a really important exhibit for people to see, that there isn’t a look to mental illness. Anyone can be living with mental illness, all ages, walks of life. The conversations need to be more normal. People shouldn’t be afraid to reach out for help because of how they’re feeling. I hope it helps start those conversations.”

That stigma was what prompted Fox, who lives in Portland, Maine, and her daughter to create The Yellow Tulip Project and then, later, the photo exhibit. Shortly before Julia began her sophomore year of high school, she revealed that she had been depressed and needed help. When she lost her two best friends to suicide, she channeled her grief into a new mission, and The Yellow Tulip Project was born. Named for her friends’ favorite flower and color, the nonprofit’s mission is simple: to create hope by planting yellow tulip gardens, bring communities together and let people know that support does exist. 

It was, Fox said, “a beautiful entry point” to what she calls “smashing the stigma” that surrounds mental illness. But it was a conversation with a family member, who said, “Julia doesn’t look depressed,” that led to the creation of “I Am More,” Fox recalled.

“Well, what does depression look like? You can’t see it, and you don’t know what people are going through,” she said.

In early 2019, The Yellow Tulip Project posted a call for models on its Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/theyellowtulipproject), and the photography sessions were completed over two Saturdays in January of that year. The first-ever opening was held in May 2019 at the Steedwell Projects gallery in Portland and, since then, the exhibit has traveled in various forms to other locations. A smaller set, with 11 of the 22 photographs, were printed for the Portland International Airport, and the exhibit also is a semi-permanent exhibit at Logan Airport in Boston.

“I Am More” has been on display at schools and in hospitals, and recently, Fox said, an organization from Alabama requested to show the exhibit. In addition, there is a digital version and a teaching kit, “Facing Stigma: Creating Solutions,” that can be used in schools as part of the health curriculum, and a template for communities to create a more local version of “I Am More” has been in the works.

“It captures age, diversity, gender, ethnicity,” Fox said of the “I Am More” exhibit. “There’s such a diversity, and there’s a diversity in the mental health issues people are facing.”

The photographs “create empathy, they create a sense of connection,” said Paul Piwko, a professor at Assumption University and co-developer of the National Museum of Mental Health Project, a nonprofit that researches and shares information about mental health and wellness exhibits. “We hear about celebrities, and this is wonderful – people with name recognition – but I think it’s so heroic that so many people in these exhibits we’ve researched are regular, everyday folks who are putting their stories out there. That’s how the change happens.”

“I Am More. Facing Stigma,” which first opened in 2019 in Portland, Maine, will be on display in Whitinsville through Oct. 8.

Anna Mullen, a junior at Assumption University and director of the Youth Board for The Yellow Tulip Project, agreed, saying she “absolutely loves” the exhibit. “I think it’s so powerful to have people, young and old, to have people who look like me. It’s inspiring. I have no words,” she said. “It does an incredible job of breaking down those barriers in our minds of what mental health looks like.”

Fox said she challenges anyone to view the exhibit and not be moved by the powerfulness of the photographs and the models’ stories. “Ultimately, hopefully, it will save lives. Suicide rates are skyrocketing. Youth suicide rates are skyrocketing,” she said, adding, “If we can smash the stigma, maybe people will feel less alone and safer.”

“I Am More. Facing Stigma” is open for viewing by appointment from 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. Please call the main office at (508) 234-6232 to make an appointment. After-hour appointments can be accommodated as well; email Collari at cristi.collari@openskycs.org.

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