Today I went to experience the Science Museum of Minnesota’s “Mental Health: Mind Matters.” For me as a person surviving mental illness, I was positive about the whole thing. As I walked in I was struck by the décor. Everything is colored in shrill black and white. The exhibit consists of a series of small coves. Each part invites you in to be an active participant in learning about mental illnesses.
The first “station” has a series of video screens that run in a loop. People are introducing themselves and repeating that it is OK to be mentally ill. I hate the label, but, I know it is common vernacular. As I progressed through the exhibit, I was getting a re-education on some issues: the history of mental illness treatment in Europe and the United States. The terrifying history of lobotomies is described in detail, the severing of the frontal lobes of the human brain in order to create a peaceful worry-free patient. Common in the 1950s, the station describes the practice as abolished and repudiated by doctors who had once believed in the practice. I was relieved and horrified. Right away I imagined myself in a never-ending state of semi-blissful drooling. Moving on, Freud is examined. His belief in free association talk therapy is described. Freud is now largely debunked for his false belief that homosexuality is caused by problems with one’s “parental units.”
The exhibit is very educational. In the Bethlehem Royal Hospital in London, England, circa 1753, the mental patients were a source of entertainment for those who wanted to view them chained in misery. The hospital promoted and sold tours. Horrific practice. Thankfully this practice was abolished.
One of the most interesting coves has a series of screens and a bench to sit on. There are buttons to press for each person’s story. Elliot describes his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in detail. He served in the Gulf War in Iraq. He saw women and men burned to the point of charring on their lower extremities. Elliot described how he felt each time he saw these burnings right before his face. Once he returned from war he began have two major symptoms that I also have: nightmares and flashbacks. He described the grip the PTSD had on him. The nightmares were terrifying. Flashbacks were triggered by something as innocuous as a July 4th fireworks display. The scents and the sounds put him right back in Iraq in a combat zone. He talked about a resolve he developed. He would overcome the nightmares and flashbacks. He told the audience that he would not give PTSD any more power. He defeated it. With a combination of medication and talk therapy, he can now attend a fireworks display and enjoy it. He savors time with his lady friend. Other survivors of mental illness share their equally profound stories of recovery. The others described Major Depression, Schizo-Affective Disorder, Bi-Polar and Borderline Personality Disorder. As I watched the short video autobiographies, I saw myself. It was not fun. It brought back painful memories. I too hear crazy tormenting disembodied voices hurling threats and insults. I thought to myself, I have come a long way. Simple things like showering daily, eating healthy and exercise were much more difficult eight years ago than today. The stories were honest. Poignant. Remarkable.
Some parts of the exhibit were more fun. There is a small cove with screens. Common theme. But this one is called “Memory.” Once you push the button to start the test, you are flashed a series of numerals. You see them for just a moment and then you have to select the numbers on the touch screen in the precise order you recall. It was pretty easy for me, but once it got into seven and eight digits, I began to fail. There was a time in the pre-cellular era when I could recall multiple phone numbers of amigos and amigas.
Moving on. There was another cove that was titled “FEAR.” It was a dimly lit little space where you are in a jungle setting at night. The owls have eyes that light up in a menacing way. It is for the younger tots. They can get some education from this exhibit as well as the rest of us.
As I was leaving, to cover all my bases, I sat down at the stigma station. Words that are commonly used to describe the emotionally afflicted were torn down, i.e., lazy and crazy. One of the commentators said something profoundly disturbing. The words “committed suicide” were offensive to her. Instead she preferred the term “completed suicide.” The word completed made it sound like a “job well done.” It scared me. Although my symptoms overcame me at times, it was worth the money and time. For people with disabilities the price is only $3 and only $2 for the Omni-theater. The regular prices are listed on the museum’s website, www.smm.org.