Understanding and maintaining our mental health has perhaps never been more important.
According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from June 24-30, U.S. adults reported considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19. Younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers and unpaid adult caregivers reported having experienced disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use and elevated suicidal ideation.
In late June, 40% of U.S. adults surveyed reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse. So the timing of the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery’s latest exhibit, “Mental Health: Mind Matters,” couldn’t be better.
“It was important two years ago, and the fact that everything’s happened with 2020 makes it even more important now to break down stigmas and make information related to mental health resources that much more accessible,” said Kristin Stern, marketing and communications manager at the museum.
It took two years of planning to bring the traveling exhibit from the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul to Fort Collins, but after a group of her colleagues saw the exhibit in person in Minnesota (pre-pandemic), Stern said the museum was determined to make it happen.
“Mental Health: Mind Matters” uses hands-on interactives and immersive multimedia activities to give visitors of all ages the opportunity to explore mental health and its importance in society. It will also facilitate a safe space to converse about a subject that is often considered taboo.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five U.S. adults experience mental illness each year. In order to build better lives for these individuals, the museum hopes to help visitors understand three key points: we must understand that mental illnesses affect more than 18% of American adults, mental illnesses can affect anyone, and these illnesses are treatable.
When visitors walk through the exhibit, Stern said they’ll be greeted by a wall of videos featuring people talking about mental health. These interview subjects discuss living with mental illnesses such as depression, and why it’s important to talk openly about their illness because it will encourage others experiencing the same thing to seek treatment. (Which is why the wall is adorned with the exhibit’s signature hashtag, #MakeItOK.)
From there, visitors can choose to go in whichever direction they want (they’ll get the same experience regardless) to explore several activities and displays such as mini dioramas with moments in mental health history, multimedia pieces that explain how to speak about mental health in a supportive manner and a game that takes them through a dark forest to confront scary creatures that symbolize confronting fear.
“There is another area, my favorite, where you write down your worry or anxiety, and it literally shreds it in front of you,” Stern said. “It’s very cathartic.”
Masks are required at all times in the museum, and hand sanitizer is provided to allow visitors to use touch screens. One of the activities also explores different emotions through a variety of thespian masks that visitors can try on, and Stern said the museum provides wipes so the masks can be sanitized between every use.
Stern added that several areas of the exhibit are also accessible for little ones. In one section, small children can play with dolls with different emotions written on them to help teach a lesson about talking through our feelings.
“It’s just the right amount of interactive, just the right amount of storytelling and history and content catered to younger people and to all people,” she said. “It’s really inspiring to be a part of.”
When museum staff previewed the exhibit earlier this fall, one of Stern’s colleagues brought her 6-year-old son to take a look. After experiencing an area that discusses various mental illnesses, he asked his mom what schizophrenia is.
“It was fascinating to see the goal of the exhibit, to open conversation, happen right before my eyes,” Stern said. “She was able to talk about it, and now it’s not something taboo to him.”