A photography and public-art project focusing on mental health brings a portion of the community out of the shadows and helps residents understand more about the process of recovery.
“I’m used to living in the shadows,” said Paul Boyer, gazing at photos of himself that would eventually be displayed in public.
Paul was a participant in the Faces of Mental Health Recovery (FoMHR) project in Perry County, Pennsylvania. He spent more than 10 years in a state hospital for mental illness. His long road to recovery started with meeting Bill McHenry, the coordinator of a local Fairweather Lodge, which is a place where people with mental illness share housing and run a business together.
By participating in the FoMHR project, Paul would be moving out of the shadows in a big way: his 21-inch by 32-inch portrait would be hung from the porch of an arts council building in Newport, Pennsylvania. Displayed with eight other portraits of people in recovery from mental illness and their supporters (like Bill), these photos would declare the subjects to be the evidence that mental health recovery can and does happen.
“It’s important for people to hear about your difficulties, but it’s even more important to hear about the possibilities,” said Shelley Bishop, my FoMHR co-leader, during the photography workshop that constituted the first stage of the project.
I had met Shelley a year earlier and learned about a mental health campaign that she co-founded, I’m the Evidence, which lifts up the stories of people in recovery from mental illness, as well as the friends, family members and professionals who help them get there. After hearing the campaign’s values and mixing it with my interest in facilitating a public art project, the idea emerged for the FoMHR project that we launched in our corner of rural Pennsylvania this fall.
In early September, I taught basic photography skills to the FoMHR participants at Shelley’s property — a 19th century farm in western Perry County. The group practiced handling a digital camera (a first for many of them), experimented with photos from multiple angles and reminded each other to shoot with the sun to their backs. The day culminated in taking portraits as each person sat on a milking stool in front of a barn.
In the second phase of the project, all of the participants, plus two staff members of the Perry County Council of the Arts, gathered at Landis House, where the photos would eventually be displayed. The task that evening was to apply the poster-sized black-and-white portraits to wooden panels using wheat paste, a material made by heating flour and water.
Wheat paste is primarily used in street art. That’s not common in a county where the biggest towns have 1,500 people. Neither is talking about mental illness and recovery. Shelley, who has struggled with mental illness herself and has been active in the consumer advocacy movement for 25 years, described the perceptions of mental health issues in rural areas:
In some cases, living and recovering in a rural community has some upsides — more connection with family, friends, neighbors who have known you forever and are more likely to see your MH challenges as a result of things they are aware of in your past. They can be more accepting of behaviors and more caring. Many people don’t see individuals who they know that do have mental illness as having this label. They talk about people having a breakdown, or their nerves being bad, and this is more normal, and okay. These same people when asked about mentally ill people very well might see “those” people as being scary, crazy or stigmatized.
Shelley also talked about the difficulties of sustaining mental health in an area where jobs are few and low-paying, transportation is limited and most health and human service agencies that serve us are located out of county:
Helping people in a time of crisis might mean involving the police as opposed to a trained mental health crisis worker. Some of the basic needs which support wellness — a place to live that is decent and affordable; a job or volunteer work; and a huge issue, having transportation to get to the doctor/services, or the grocery store, or even to get to a family member or friend’s house for support is so challenging.
For the project, we used those challenges and the participants’ personal ones as context, but focused on celebrating the individual and community steps taken to make recovery a reality. Accompanying the wheat paste panels outside is an indoor exhibit of framed portraits. Short bios displayed with the portraits describe how each participant is the evidence of ITE’s values of belief, hope, giving, connectedness, action, being the example, encouragement and possibility.
The exhibition opened on October 11, in tandem with a train art and memorabilia show at Landis House. The intermingling of a crowd of train enthusiasts, arts aficionados and people from the mental health sphere demonstrated our first degree of success at deepening public understanding of the human lives and potential behind mental illness labels.
I watched as Nikki Miller showed her photo and bio to her fiance, as Todd Stephens‘ parents chatted with arts council staff and as Brendan Bayer explained what a Fairweather Lodge is to people who lived nearby but had never heard of it before. The participant that interacted with new people the most, though, was Paul, who had been the most reluctant to be one of the faces of recovery. He had come out of the shadows indeed.
Kara Newhouse is a journalist and photographer in rural Pennsylvania. She also is a co-founder of Put People First! PA, an organization fighting for human rights across rural and urban divides.