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‘It's a part of a person, it’s not the whole person.’ Manchester airport exhibit aims to break stigma around mental illness

Paul Cuno-Booth
/
NHPR

Note: This story includes mention of suicidal ideation. If you or someone you know is in crisis, you can contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or New Hampshire's Rapid Response Access Point for help.

Keith, a firefighter from New Hampshire, has struggled with ADHD and post-traumatic stress disorder. He now shares his story with other first responders, encouraging them to talk openly and seek help when they need it.

His story is one of 10 now on display at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, as part of a new exhibit aiming to challenge negative stereotypes about mental illness.

The display lines the windows of a seating area near baggage claim. It’s a series of portraits and personal narratives of people living with — and successfully managing — mental illness, interspersed with facts about mental health.

Paul Cuno-Booth
/
NHPR

It’s the latest version of a project called “Deconstructing Stigma,” which originated at Boston’s Logan Airport in 2016 and has since spread to other locations. The Manchester airport is the first New Hampshire site to host an exhibit, and airport officials plan to keep it in place for at least a year.

“By displaying powerful stories of individuals who have overcome adversity, this exhibit shows us that recovery is possible — and that no one should suffer in silence,” Maggie Pritchard, CEO of Lakes Region Mental Health Center, said Wednesday at an event unveiling the portraits.

Pritchard also serves as president of the New Hampshire Community Behavioral Health Association, which partnered with the airport and McLean Hospital in Massachusetts on the project.

Sarah Horne of Manchester, one of three Granite Staters featured in the exhibit, said she hopes to change the way people view mental illness — somethingthat affects more than one in five adults.

“There is that misperception of what people with mental illness look like,” she said. “I'm a mom, I have a successful career, I have close family and friends, and I grew up in a nice home. It shows no bias. Mental illness can affect all of us.”

Paul Cuno-Booth
/
NHPR

Horne, who works in human resources, said she was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder as a child and struggled with thoughts of suicide as a teen. She was hospitalized more than once. Other students bullied her and didn’t seem to understand what she was going through.

It was around that time she first began speaking out. She asked her health teachers if she could talk to her peers about mental health and suicide awareness.

Today, Horne said treatment has helped her manage her symptoms. She wants others to know they can get better, too. But often, people don’t seek help because of stigma.

“It's OK to not be OK,” she said. “And it's OK to ask for help.”

Another Manchester resident featured in the exhibit said people often react negatively when they learn she has borderline personality disorder. She hopes stories like hers start to change that.

“People think, ‘Oh, you go crazy,’” said Lisa, who asked to use only her first name. “And I'm here to show that you can have a successful life. Take your medications, have your counseling, and follow the doctor's rules, and you can be a success. There are people in all walks of life — politics, lawyers, all over — that have mental illness and are successful with managing it today.”

Lisa said she was misdiagnosed at first, which led to a series of frustrating experiences with the medical system that drove her to despair. But since that time, she said, the right diagnosis and treatment have made a huge difference and helped her manage her illness.

“It's a part of a person,” she said, comparing it to her dyed blonde hair. “It's not the whole person. And I think we need to realize that that's what people think. They think if somebody has a mental illness, that that's them. And it's not.”

Paul Cuno-Booth covers health and equity for NHPR. He previously worked as a reporter and editor for The Keene Sentinel, where he wrote about police accountability, local government and a range of other topics. He can be reached at pcuno-booth@nhpr.org.
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