Storytelling with the CRC

In our panels, hear personal stories from clinicians, individuals, and families. Learn how their stories surrounding mental health will reduce stigma, provides education, and propels the power of healing.

Studies show that storytelling, a basic form of social expression,  elicits empathic responses from listeners and readers.

On a scientific level, as we listen to shared experiences, oxytocin floods the brain which allows us to form compassionate connections to the storyteller.

GUEST POST: Faces in the Crowd—99 of Them

This blog post originally appeared in February 2016 at: 

In viewing the 99 Faces Project—a diverse collection of portraits featuring people impacted by mental illness—it’s indistinguishable as to who are on the schizophrenia spectrum, who are on the bipolar spectrum, and who are the ones who love them. The diversity in age, gender, and ethnicity of the 33 participants in each category helps raise awareness that mental illness can affect anyone at any time.

The project was created by artist Lynda Cutrell, whose family member was diagnosed with mental illness. Through her experiences as an advocate and in meeting many people who live with schizophrenia and bipolar symptoms, she wants to help reduce stigma and show the public that mental illness can impact people from all different backgrounds. Meanwhile, her project helps reinforce hope and possibility for individuals and families affected by these illnesses.

Two of Lynda Cutrell’s 99 Faces

Two of Lynda Cutrell’s 99 Faces

Hope and possibility, however, were unimaginable upon first hearing her family member’s diagnosis. Despite worrisome and progressive behavioral changes, she and her family never imagined what they would hear from clinicians.

“My experience, like so many families, was that there was nothing to prepare me for what happens emotionally or financially with a diagnosis like this,” said Cutrell. “It’s a pretty devastating thing—for both the individual who has the onset of this illness, as well as the family.”

Cutrell found there were few community resources available for families who were facing mental illness of a loved one for the first time. It was through McLean Hospital that she learned the latest research about schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

“I went to a lecture about what was happening with mental illness research in the laboratory. The imagery of those cells in the lab was remarkable,” she said. “I was brought to tears, as it helped me understand this illness was systemic and that it wasn't something we caused. It was visual recognition of a real impact on life, and at the same time, a relief to see it.”

That lecture, hosted by NAMI Cambridge-Middlesex, was given by Bruce M. Cohen, MD, PhD, director of McLean’s Program for Neuropsychiatric Research, the founding director of the McLean Brain Imaging Center, and president and psychiatrist in chief emeritus of McLean Hospital from 1997 to 2005.

Cohen suggested that Cutrell become involved in NAMI. She welcomed the opportunity and served as president of NAMI Massachusetts for two years and also served on the organization’s national board of directors in Washington, DC.

Through advocacy work, Cutrell met hundreds of individuals and families and embarked upon her own mission to learn about their experiences with mental illness. She wanted to know more not only about their problems, but also about those who were in recovery and doing well.

“I asked people about their experiences in their own recovery and what I found out is that it’s not the end of life as we know it—it’s the beginning of a different kind of life,” she said. “I met a young woman who got her master's degree from Harvard after her diagnosis. I began to meet many individuals who went on to get their master’s degree, and some who went on to get their PhDs and had become doctors.”

“I thought, ‘how come I never heard this was possible?’ What I was facing initially was that there was complete limitation of productivity, love, life in general. No one told me anything different, nothing hopeful. I began to try and figure out what was most important to recovery and what I learned is that it was love and family,” she said, “but sometimes families give up because the prognosis sounds so final. Many were telling me the diagnosis would mean some form of institutional living.”

“One of the greatest comforts to me,” said Cutrell, “was to find out that it’s family that will ultimately be one of the most important components of recovery. There’s medication and treatment, but family and close friends are what primarily support the individual—it’s their foundation and what sustains them.”

“I wanted to communicate to other families what I learned and I wanted to do it quickly,” said Cutrell, who had spent 25 years in investments and was an adjunct professor at Boston College teaching marketing in the MBA program. She had left her job around the same time her family member's illness was developing, went to art school, and learned a different way of communicating: visual art.

“What I realized,” she said, “is that imagery communicates instantly. And it can show people recovery and to not think of this diagnosis as the end.”

All the Solutions are in the Black Box by Lynda Cutrell

All the Solutions are in the Black Box by Lynda Cutrell

As a visual artist, Cutrell’s website features an intersection of her art and the science that depicts various images of the commonness of mental illness as well as the cellular, brain imaging, and genetic research.

Cutrell and many other advocates believe that the media shapes the public’s perception of what it’s like for people with a mental illness and to be afraid of them and their behaviors. “The public is only exposed to a media construct and they paint that picture so poorly,” she said. “It also affects the people who have the illnesses, so I wanted to show the situation in a different vein—not only for the newly-diagnosed families but also try to shape—if I could—what the public should realize is possible.”

“I shuffled up all the portraits in the 99 Faces Project so you can’t tell who has what—but what you can tell is that they’re laughing and that they’re having loving relationships,” said Cutrell. “There are three million people in the United States who suffer from schizophrenia and not everyone ends up like the couple of dozen we read about in the newspaper. Recovery depends on families, community, and the resources and encouragement they receive.”

In fact, Cutrell pointed out that the portrait of Mark Vonnegut, MD, son of the late American novelist Kurt Vonnegut, is featured in the project. He has a successful pediatric practice and is the author of two books. He will be the keynote speaker at McLean’s Board of Visitors meeting on May 4.

“My goal of 99 Faces,” she said, “is that when a young adult finds out they have a diagnosis and it’s not going to go away—that they need to know they can still have a productive life filled with loving relationships, and their families need to know the importance of being and staying involved. I believe we can begin to change the public's perception.”

Cutrell will begin to realize that goal when the 99 Faces Project is displayed at the Boston Museum of Science this fall. The idea was proposed by Cohen after he gave a talk at the museum last spring.

“Ultimately the value of 99 Faces is engagement and information,” said Cohen, “and this is true of much of Lynda's art as well—the idea is first to engage people—once you engage them with the photographs and the art, you educate them about the realities of mental illness. What the art stresses is the humanity, the humanness of people with psychiatric disorders.

“The museum sees the educational value of this exhibit,” said Cohen. “What we are all really after is breaking down stigma, getting people to be more empathic. In the exhibit we’ll be using various media—videos, music, text, and a timeline—so that when people visit the exhibit they will learn a lot more about mental illnesses as medical disorders, including what we know about them, what can be done for patients and families, and what the promise of the future is in research and treatment.”

Cohen and Cutrell are also working on a book based on the lives of several of the individuals in the 99 Faces Project. Cutrell is writing about the journey of each person; Cohen is describing the science of what is happening to the individual.

Ambition Starts at the Top

The 99 FACES PROJECT has an astute artisan who never minces words, but puts them into simple prose that always is full of conviction and contention. You only have to hear it once to appreciate where this noble endeavor may eventually reach and be successful:

" Our project is to invite everyone in, surprising viewers with the wonderful folks that they may have missed, and can appreciate. Also to have the young members of our culture begin with this new view. "

What can we learn from 99 FACES?  A lot about examples of equal humanity and maybe a chance to win a long fought war against diseases of any kinds, even when you can't tell whom has what by looking at still images. That makes the playing field level? Is there a stepping stone for everyone, not just the few? 

The endeavor is called 99 FACES, not 1 or 999. Though a mere random number, it is assumed that no one will be left behind in any way, shape, or form. We're all in this together. The project refuses to contribute to a prejudice that already permeates much of the world. The-all-for-one-and-one-for-all attitude is another part of the 99 FACES belief system. You will have a hard time disagreeing with the potential positive nature of this premise, even while it asks you to make seemingly mind probing and varied decisions regarding what you are looking at.

Because this subject matter is relatively new and has not been presented in this form or at such great lengths in such lucrative venues, 99 FACES honors those whom it represents by not creating any friction between its citizens by mentioning any personal health related concerns, nor does it care to suggest the specific conditions that may or may not exist. That would alter the playing field and throw stigma right back in the direction of the 99 FACES. 

To sum up: 99 FACES is a learning experience, each visage is treated the same.  This will bring about a fair, scientific and purposeful debate regarding the general public when talking about the effects of mental health, that everyone has a chance to be looked at as the same.  99 FACES has come a long way from science fiction to a more believable and loving science fact.


99 Faces Is Infinitesimal

And so hard to tell one from the other. That's the point. We all are one. Nothing separates us but the clothes on each other's back. Our blood flow is all the same. 99 FACES deals with the human condition by stripping the innuendo and cutting right to the chase. Put some fancy duds on somebody and guess if that model is being mentally victimized in some way. You have as many chances of being 99 times right as you would be 99 times wrong! It's a lesson in psychological photography and the art of reason.

You might as well be looking at a number with an unforeseen amount of zeros on one end and an equally long duration on the other. With people who have any strain of a mental health issue, ask yourself this question: How many people are there in the world? Just by a mere glance it is virtually impossible to fathom what the percentage of our kind makes up those census type figures. Or who or is what? Your guess is as good as mine. Just at a glance, what is the chance????

This project tries to come to that invisibly visible conclusion. Can you see in only 99 of a possible impossible scale the amount of folks who are stricken with the ailment? Yes and no. Facial ticks and sporadic movements in a specific count of pictured likenesses does not necessarily mean that those few have nature's diagnosis. Whose to judge and where are we going with all this?

99 FACES points out using a very accurate yardstick that a sizable tally of the human race are unique in their own way, some of it is obvious, many traits are not, and we fall asleep at the wheel when we try to say that somebody has a mental illness when in reality they do not. Many times, the eyes lie. Thoughts play tricks on you. You cannot come up with snap judgments of somebody just by looking at a photograph or be next to a guy and expect to give an accurate synopsis without actually to coming up with the proper detailing just by looking at a person. That is a dead giveaway that by using all backgrounds, looks and demeanor's not to mention fashion sense all the above meant to cover up the model's more obvious serious characteristics that might have given him other away, that it is humanly impossible to tell if he or she is mentally ill and it is done using a skillful artistic bent, photography and fashion.

99 FACES does not claim to be a guessing game. It simply wants to point out in a visible way using the arts that no one advocate, peer or observer looks like the stereotype or actually is what some people say about what the typical livelihood of one of us or should even be judged as such, to avoid stigma, another parallel of the 99 FACES cuisine. It tries to prove that no matter who you are, no matter what you have or have not, are or are not, it is not right to call these subjects anything than what they are: beautiful and perfect in their imperfections where nobody can guess exactly how many more sculptured souls there are before, during and after them, regardless of the planet's population..

This is not a numbers game. It comes down to setting values. People should not be labeled as having a liability because they are more or less able to do more things than they are not nor should we have to put a number on them just to prove that when you dress them up and put them next to a completely different person and make that enjoining curve go for a long distance that we are any different, prettier, look better or on the other hand deserve scorn than anyone else because we are ALL judges and juries who when we keep our mouths shut, and just be human, there is no difference from 99 FACES to 1,000,000!

Whether mentally positioned people are placed in a photo shoot or just walking down the street, the only call that should be made when comparing any homo sapien should not include the size and capacity of one another's brain or willpower but what that person can accomplish by virtue of a good heart regardless of the cards that they were dealt.

99 FACES is 100% correct in its exploration of humanity.  When a certain flaw or condition presents itself, it becomes more socially acceptable under the proper circumstances, thus cutting down stigma, an enviable and proper goal in dealing with the fight against beating the weight of the disease. Dress somebody up and the neighborhood looks brighter because you become accepted as your problems are rejected. A good looking person never has to explain their pain. A lot of times the chosen few who have debilitating injuries like ours don't have that luxury and that's the point. Feel like a million bucks and full of better luck to you and yours if you buy it a nice new set of clothes. More often than not, we'll cease to disagree.

99 FACES doesn't miss a beat in explaining that both inside and out, we are all the same! But you'll never be able to tell, 99 per cent of the time!