Mandi Latzke stepped into a small, partly enclosed room in the exhibits gallery of the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul. She sat down, pushed a button and began to cry. A young woman on a screen told the story of being sexually assaulted at age 12, of developing an anxiety disorder she kept a secret, of thoughts of suicide, hospitalizations, self-blame.
The young woman was Latzke herself, who said that in those dark days, “I honestly was thinking I was going to die.”
But that’s not the end of her story. Now 29, married and working as a paralegal, Latzke calls her life “a dream come true.”
The dramatic and happy shift is due to an “amazing” therapist, effective medications and strong support from family members and friends who stayed close and sought out their own guidance from mental health professionals.
Latzke, of Lonsdale, Minn., understands that she has a chronic illness and will always need to check herself. But she feels lucky. Ten million American adults, one in every 25 — perhaps the guy down the hall at work, or the woman next door, or a fellow parent sitting in the bleachers — are living with mental illnesses. Many keep that a secret, due to fear or shame or simply because no hospital or clinic can take them. The ramifications can become a piling-on of losses: jobs, friends, homes, self-worth.
As Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota (namihelps.org), poignantly points out, nobody’s sending them a “Get well” card.
Happily, those affected, and their families, just got something better than a card.
The Science Museum has launched an unusual and ambitious exhibit to not only encourage us to talk about mental illness, but show us how.
I’ve seen it twice, and I hope you’ll go. “Mental Health: Mind Matters” runs through Jan. 6, 2019.
Through a few dozen hands-on activities, most of them kid-friendly, the exhibit gives us the words we need to start conversations, the words we might avoid, and the wisdom to be advocates instead of judges.
For those living with a mental illness, the exhibit is demystifying and affirming. A woman standing next to me said, to no one in particular, “I have depression. I appreciate this very much.”
The exhibit debuted at Heureka: The Finnish Science Centre in October 2013. It was billed as “the first-ever science centre exhibition on mental health,” and won an international prize for visitor experience, even with its cringeworthy title, “Heureka Goes Crazy.”
The exhibit traveled in Europe through November 2016. We can be proud that St. Paul is the first stop before the blessedly renamed “Mental Health: Mind Matters” travels around the United States.
“I’m so honored to be part of it,” said Latzke, who is one of several dozen Minnesotans who shared their stories for it.
“I’m proud that it’s going to travel the country. It’s real and it’s raw, and there are people who put themselves out there, and there’s nothing more powerful than that.
“If I can reach one person who is holding this dark secret inside them,” she said, “it’s completely worth it.”
There are so many people who deserve to hear this, including the precious kids under our roofs and in our classrooms. Fully 20 percent of those ages 13 to 18 live with a mental health condition, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (nimh.nih.gov). Half of all cases of mental illness begin by age 14, 75 percent by age 24.
The ramifications of not getting help can be lifelong: 37 percent of students with a mental health condition drop out of school. Seventy percent of young people in state and local juvenile justice systems have a mental illness. Suicide is now the third-leading cause of death among ages 10 to 24.
Wisely, the museum is marketing directly to teachers through direct mail and e-mail, said spokeswoman Sarah Imholte, inviting them to visit the exhibit for free to scout it out for a potential field trip for students.
Everything about “Mind Matters,” presented locally by mental health services provider PrairieCare, says, “Come on in and let’s normalize this conversation together,” including its strategic location by the Lego exhibit on the fourth floor.
Visitors may write down their worries on small pieces of paper, then place them into a Worry Shredder; don huge “schizophones” to inhabit the noisy, chaotic environment that some people experience on a regular basis; and try on masks representing emotions from anger to sadness. On one visit, a small child with his mother faced a large screen with foreboding eyes looking out at them from a forest; when he touched those scary eyes, they transformed into sweet and harmless animals, demonstrating the power of overcoming our fears.
On one end of the large room, interactive stations offer easily accessible information on symptoms and treatments of common mental illnesses, including anxiety disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders and bipolar disorder. On the other end, a resources corner has adult and children’s books, as well as take-home information sheets that are easily digestible and multicultural, including mental health facts for people of color and members of the LGBTQ community.
Casual chairs invite visitors to make themselves comfortable and stay awhile.
No longer alone
Rebecca Erickson calls “Mind Matters” “amazing, and really, really thorough.” Like Latzke, 36-year-old Erickson shares her personal story of living with a mental illness. She has bipolar disorder.
Walking into the exhibit and seeing herself on a large photo display at the entrance was, at first, a shock. “I was embarrassed a little bit,” she said. “Omigod, there I am. A little overwhelmed. And, then, I was really curious about the exhibit.”
She and I sat down at a “psychosis simulator,” with a woman’s voice spewing verbally abusive accusations at us as we tried to have a normal conversation. That awful voice was all we could hear.
Exercises such as this one, said Erickson, who has a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, are designed to help police officers and other first responders called to a scene with someone experiencing a mental health episode, “to have more compassion for them.”
She had auditory hallucinations at one point. At 19, and a freshman music major at the University of Minnesota, she experienced her first “bit of mania.” She remembers thinking that she was talking all the time, needing to keep moving, unable to calm down. Sometimes she would run back and forth across the Washington Avenue bridge over the Mississippi River for an hour to work off steam.
She didn’t need much sleep.
At around 21, she had her first psychotic break, which included delusional thinking. She stopped bathing and going to class. She couldn’t eat, shrinking to 95 pounds. She went into her kitchen and picked up a butcher knife to harm herself, but decided to check in with a friend first. That friend realized the severity of her illness and helped to get her hospitalized.
She received “tons of support” from her family, including parents Bonnie and Jim, who started going to National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota meetings when she was still in the hospital.
Erickson found “a fantastic psychiatrist.” She regained weight, became a vegetarian and reconnected with her music.
She now works for LifeSpan as a behavioral therapist, working with middle-schoolers who have mental illnesses.
She said she hopes that “Mind Matters” will open doors for other families. “I’m so successful because I am fortunate to have the support I do from my family and friends,” she said. “I could have become homeless. I could have turned to drugs and alcohol.”
This bold exhibit, she said, is a ticket for anyone who has been battling alone for years to no longer feel alone.
“If they’ve given up on trying to explain, now they’ll be able to say, ‘This is why I’ve always been this way’ and their family will be, like, ‘I get it.’ ”