Mental Health Exhibit Fosters Understanding

Sarah Blumenthal PO ’15 struggled with an eating disorder throughout high school. When she came to college, she hoped to be able to talk openly about her experience. What she found, though, was that sharing elicited more discomfort than support.

To provide a setting in which students could communicate about mental health issues, the 5C Mental Health Alliance (MHA) put together a multimedia art gallery, "A Day in Your Shoes," on Nov. 6 at Pomona College's new Studio Art Hall. 

Student-produced work lined the walls of the Gray Space, and gentle music played in the background to set a warm and welcoming tone for the evening. Beanbag chairs dotted the floor, inviting students to pause and talk about the work they saw. The interactive “stigma wall,” a large sheet of paper titled "I am not my … " provided an opportunity for viewers to contribute a piece of their own experience to the display.

“This is one of the more interactive things we’ve had because people can submit their own work; it’s on the walls for people to see, and it’s a different way of interacting with art and poetry,” said Blumenthal, an MHA officer. 

The night's lineup also included written and spoken word poetry, paintings, photography and short stories. The exhibit displayed a diversity of perspectives on how common it is to struggle with mental health yet how easily this struggle is masked by a happy façade.  

The exhibit also included pieces by professional photographer Steve Rosenfield as a part of his “What I Be" project. Rosenfield's work aims to bring about honesty and create positive self-perception through portrait photographs of subjects, with their own insecurities written across their faces. According to his website, he “started this project in hopes of empowering those who feel they suffer for something they see as a flaw,” and has traveled to a number of universities to portray student perspectives. Last March, Rosenfield visited Scripps College and photographed 40 students for the project. 

“A Day in Your Shoes” is one of many events that the MHA organizes throughout the year. 

“The mission of the Mental Health Alliance is to organize events that raise awareness about mental health issues and stigma on campus,” co-president Chiara Dorigo PO ’15 said. 

These functions are usually discussion-based, often in a panel format. While intellectually focused presentations can be enlightening, the club took a different approach for this event. 

“We wanted to open up the opportunity for people to express themselves in a different way,” Dorigo said. “This was a forum for people to share a broader interpretation of mental health and their personal experiences.”

“I just don’t think that we talk about it enough on these campuses,” Dorigo added.

Blumenthal agreed, and she said that she hopes that the efforts of the MHA will play a role in changing that sentiment. 

“To be able to share and see that this is really a common thing enables people who are struggling to help each other,” she said. 

Ben Carroll PO ’17, who attended the event, said that student responses indicate that the 5Cs have made progress toward normalizing conversations about mental health. 

“I was glad that people felt comfortable enough to put their work out there, but I was also a little surprised by how many people were comfortable with attaching their name to the work,” Carroll said. “I think that speaks to how stigma surrounding mental health issues is slowly being removed.”

“Having people’s experiences out there to be seen, to be heard, to be read, anything that gets it more in the public’s eye is going to help,” he added. “Knowing that all of the work was from peers, people who could be walking down the street alongside you, I think that’s a really powerful idea.”