Exhibition simulates mental health disorders to raise awareness

Mental Health: Mind Matters is an immersive exhibit at the Science Museum of Virginia intended to raise awareness about mental illness. Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore

Grace McOmber, Contributing Writer

In the middle of a dark room sits a large white machine with rotating teeth and small slips of paper next to it. Above it, a sign directs the reader to write a “worry” on the slip and place it into the machine before turning the lever and shredding the paper. 

The station was created to resemble feelings of anxiety, and the process of shredding the worry represents anxiety leaving the participant. 

The “worry shredder” is one of many interactive stations in the Mental Health: Mind Matters exhibition, located in the Science Museum of Virginia. 

“It’s always cool to learn what’s going through someone’s mind,” said Hasun Rogers, an attendee who brought his 8-year-old son, Hayden, to the exhibition. “Just kind of how people who have those issues, how they see things. So I think he learned a little bit from it.”

The exhibition, located in the Anna L. and T. Fleetwood Garner Gallery, features a number of interactive stations exploring the effects of living with mental illness and the importance of mental health. These include a stress-relieving dance room, an interactive mental health quiz and an animatronic scene about living with depression.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand that people that have mental health issues also have feelings,” Rogers said. “Like with the depression one, I want him [Hayden] to understand like ‘hey, this is what people go through.’” 

The exhibition opened on Feb. 6 and will run until Aug. 29. It was originally created by the Science Museum of Minnesota, a past collaborator of the museum. 

Museum attendees Emma Peircy and Bailey Crawford play the emotion recognition game in the Mental Health: Mind Matters exhibit. Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore

With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, one of the exhibition’s goals is to destigmatize the conversation surrounding mental health and encourage guests to continue the conversation even after they leave the museum.

“Talking about mental illnesses is associated with a lot of negativity,” museum spokesperson Jennifer Guild said. “You know, it’s ‘you’re weak, you’re broken, you’re messed up,’ just all of these negative things. So just having the conversation is step one in kind of dispelling some of that stigma that comes with a topic like mental health.”

To simulate the experiences of those living with mental illnesses, the exhibition utilizes a number of different technologies, including interactive touch-screens and video testimonials. It also has more unique features, like a mirror that alters in shape to simulate body dysmorphia, and noise-distorting headphones that mimic symptoms of psychosis.

“This exhibition is not an exhibition just for people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness,” Guild said. “This exhibition is a reminder that it is important to factor in everyone’s relationship with mental health as it applies to our overall wellness. That is a critical, important part of the big picture.”

Since its opening, the exhibition has been extremely popular with guests of all ages, despite the more serious nature of the topic, Guild said.

“It’s a little bit of a departure in some of the exhibits that we have had in that space in recent history,” Guild said. “But it’s a great example of people having an entertaining and enjoyable experience and giving them that kind of food for thought to continue throughout their day, their week, their month.”

Guild said that while the pandemic has emphasized the importance of providing mental health support during times of stress, the topic of mental health is always relevant.

Museum attendees Diana and Jamie Coleman take an interactive mental health quiz in the Mental Health: Mind Matters exhibit. Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore

“This exhibit is timely and topical, completely unrelated to the pandemic,” Guild said. “But science does tell us that some of the mental health challenges have absolutely been exacerbated because of the isolation and stress and anxiety that the pandemic brought on.” 

In addition to the interactive activities, resources are provided throughout the exhibit, such as mental health care groups. The museum also brings in mental health experts each Saturday to talk with guests going through the exhibition. 

“The conversations that come out of an exhibition like this are incredibly timely coming off of a tumultuous year,” Guild said. “It’s a great opportunity for people to really reset their mindset of mental health and make sure that they have strategies in place for prioritizing their mental health just like they would any other aspect of wellness.”

Keyuna Patterson, a health educator at The Well, VCU’s health promotion and well-being center, said breaking down the stigma around conversation about mental health and having empathy for both yourself and others is important.

“It is important that we be supportive of each other and give ourselves and others grace,” Patterson said in an email.

To do so, Patterson said staying in tune with one’s mental health is crucial for overall health, especially during stressful periods. To do so, she advised that students who are struggling contact VCU counseling services or visit The Well for stress management techniques.

“I can not stress this enough, we need rest. So make yourself some tea, or take a nap. Give yourself a break. Prioritize a break in your study sessions,” Patterson said. “Also, seek professional help. You are not alone.”

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