Drawing Attention to a Mental Health Crisis

Posted May 26, 2010 at 5:10pm

Matt McDonough, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelance documentary photographer, worked in a psychiatric hospital during high school. He found it disturbing.

“I was constantly hearing people’s stories in group therapy — people needed help,” he said. “But the worst part was that many couldn’t get treatment based on their insurance policies and financial situations.”

McDonough soon learned that the number of patients in state psychiatric hospitals decreased by 90 percent between the 1950s and the 1990s because of deinstitutionalization and budget cuts. Treatment for many suffering from depression, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses was inaccessible, he said. Hospitals were closing, patients couldn’t find care and many became homeless or lived unhappy lives.

As a result, McDonough became an advocate for the mentally ill — and he tells their stories through photography.

At the corner of L and 16th streets Northwest, three of McDonough’s photographs are framed on the walls of ARTiculate Gallery, a space at WVSA ARTs Connection. One depicts an empty, rusty wheelchair sitting in the hallway of a dilapidated building. Dirt and trash cover the floor, paint is peeling off the walls and the light bulb is burned out. Another photo shows the hallway of an abandoned psychiatric hospital. All the whitewashed doors, once locked for security, are opened wide, and no human is in the picture.

McDonough’s photos are just three of 15 art pieces in the gallery’s newest exhibition, “Vital (A)(R)(T).” In a collaboration between the WVSA, a nonprofit that provides venues for “arts-infused education,” and the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based National Network of Depression Centers, the gallery features the works of young professional artists who have suffered from or been touched by depression, bipolar disorder or mental illness in their lives.

“There is a negative stigma in the general public that if you’re living with depression, you’re less socially acceptable and less able to accomplish what you want to do in life,” said Mary Sellers, gallery and outreach coordinator. “We’re trying to break that stereotype down by featuring these works.”

The prestige of the artists debunks the notion itself, Sellers said. Most are graduates of well-known art schools, some magna cum laude. Most have been featured in solo exhibitions, have been published and have earned master’s degrees.

Sellers said the gallery also acts as an awareness campaign, allowing those who have suffered from mental illness to express how they feel and drawing attention to the fact that 21 million Americans are diagnosed with depression each year. McDonough said more than 50 percent of Americans will experience some kind of mental illness in their lifetimes.

The photographs, paintings, embroideries, multimedia pieces and sculptures express the artists’ concerns or feelings. McDonough’s photos of abandoned mental health clinics cry out for more funding from insurance companies for those suffering, he said. Some are reflections of self. One painting reads, “Please act normal,” something family members might say to a depressed or bipolar relative, Sellers said.

“Vital (A)(R)(T)” works were chosen by the NNDC and have been shipped across the country to different venues. The exhibit was named for the belief that art is vital for expression, Sellers said. The distinct A, R, T connotes the individuality of each person’s story.

“Vital (A)(R)(T)” is open 10 a.m. to
6 p.m. Monday through Friday until June 16 at 1100 16th St. NW.