Looking back at the ways in which society has treated mental illness, it’s hard to decide which was worse: being subjected to a lobotomy, as 18,000 people in the United States were, being relegated to England’s Bethlem Royal Hospital, a place 18th-century Londoners visited for “entertainment,” or being locked up in Finland’s Seili Mental Hospital, where patients were regularly beaten, kicked and thrown around.
Between 1.1 and 1.5 million Virginians have some form of mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia, which also estimates that about 102,000 children and adolescents in Virginia have serious emotional disturbance.
The Science Museum of Virginia’s new exhibit, “Mental Health: Mind Matters,” opens at a time when more people than ever are facing mental health issues thanks partly to the isolation associated with the pandemic. It offers an introduction to many mental health disorders and gives both parents and children a glimpse into such experiences. It’s intended to be the beginning of a journey sparking multigenerational conversations about the importance of mental health as a component of overall wellness.
“Mental health isn’t an important topic just because of the pandemic, but because it’s long been discussed and treated differently from other health conditions,” says Timshel Purdum, director of playful learning and inquiry at the museum. A June 2020 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report stated that U.S. adults had considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions, substance use and suicidal thoughts associated with the pandemic. “For that reason, the timing of the exhibition is even more impactful for our community as people are experiencing mental health challenges for the first time or are experiencing worsening symptoms.”
The exhibition is deliberately interactive, offering visitors the opportunity not only to better understand mental illness, but to simulate how different illnesses affect people. Sit at a mirrored vanity and by pushing a button, see and hear how the science of the brain causes depression or psychosis to learn how the body reacts when a person has various issues. For a better understanding of eating disorders, stand in front of a self-image mirror to explore how you see yourself by turning a dial to adjust the mirror’s image. Touch screens allow you to test your reasoning, your memory, your ability to recognize emotions and your ability to work fast and efficiently.
The museum’s scientist in residence, Catherine Franssen, says the content being accessible for all ages was an important part of the museum’s decision to hold the exhibition because so many of its visitors are families. “Everyone’s health is impacted by their mental wellness, not just adults, so the exhibition is designed for age-appropriate insight regarding monitoring individual mental wellness for all ages,” she explains. “Just like physical health, the exhibition helps families be aware that mental health is a key component to overall health and functioning.”
One room is devoted to a simulator that allows visitors to try doing simple tasks while hearing voices, as is the case for people with psychotic episodes who may not know which of the thoughts and feelings are real. The simulator helps visitors understand the strength and resilience it takes to function while living with auditory hallucinations.
Given the pandemic reality of constant mask wearing, the emotion game feels especially relevant. A 2017 study by researchers at Cornell University demonstrated that participants could consistently match words describing mental states by eye expressions alone. In the exhibition’s game, one masked person stands behind a wall, where a wheel is spun and lands on an emotion. They then put their masked face into a hole in the wall and act out the emotion solely with their eyes. Those on the other side of the wall attempt to guess the emotion and the first to do so wins.
The final part of the large, 5,000-square-foot exhibit is devoted to resources, from an art therapy room to a roomful of children’s books with titles such as “Wilma Jean and the Worry Machine” and “Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry,” complete with bean bag chairs and a carpeted platform for little readers. An extensive array of resource pamphlets, sheets and books are placed near comfy reading chairs. A large sign lists sources of immediate help, such as the National Suicide Prevention Line and the Veterans’ Crisis Line – and their telephone numbers.
Purdum says the museum expects guests to be more eager to see the exhibition than they might have been prior to the pandemic because the topic is so timely and more receptive to the material when they do explore it.
“Although mental illness is treatable, not everyone seeks help or is aware that medical intervention options are available,” she says. “The resources provided in the exhibition will also help people who might have experienced mental health challenges for the first time in 2020 and not know where to turn for help.”
“Mental Health: Mind Matters” runs through Aug. 29 at the Science Museum of Virginia, 2500 W. Broad St., smv.org.