14 Faces of Mental Illness

“I have schizoaffective disorder and I’m a father.”

Alex Acosta, 28, is not embarrassed to say he has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. He is forthright and open about his mental illness because he hopes people will view him differently.

He wants people to know he is more than his mental illness. He wants people to know he is a proud father. He wants his family to have a better understanding of his condition. Acosta, the father of an 11-year old girl, is tired of being stigmatized.

He is not alone. That is why Acosta and 13 other members of the Meeting Place Clubhouse, a mental health clubhouse funded by the County, chose to be featured in a photographic exhibition exploring the stigma of mental illness, its effect on individuals and families and the triumphs of people recovering from their illness.

Through our lens: personal stories of mental illness features 28 photos of the 14 clubhouse members. The exhibit will be on display May 16, 2013 from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Queen Bee’s Art and Cultural Center, 3925 Ohio Street in North Park. The exhibit is free and open to the public.

Fourteen black and white, “stigma” photos document the darkness of the stigma of mental illness and the rays of hope that can exist when stigma is overcome by love and acceptance. Each photograph will be accompanied by a short essay written by the member about how stigma has personally affected them.

Those photos will be juxtaposed against 14 color, “I am” portraits which show members as they view themselves and will be accompanied by another short essay describing what they are proud about or want the world to know about them.  Visit gallery of all the images

“I want people to know the other side of my story,” said Acosta. In his personal essay, he describes his daughter as his “angel” and talks about how she knows about his diagnosis and does not judge him.

“This will help to erase stigma, hopefully one person at a time,” said Acosta who is getting treatment for schizoaffective disorder, a condition in which a person experiences a combination of schizophrenia symptoms — such as hallucinations or delusions — and of mood disorder symptoms, such as mania or depression.

They just don’t understand. Hopefully this will open their mind.
-Alex Acosta, Clubhouse Member

Acosta’s “stigma” photo shows him with strings tied to his hands and feet. A hand pulls on the strings from above.

“Sometimes I feel like a puppet,” Acosta said in Spanish referring to how he feels his family treats him. “They just don’t understand. Hopefully this will open their mind,” added Acosta, whose “I am” photo shows him in a bright red, button-up shirt.

The exhibit was planned to coincide with Mental Health Month when the County and its many partners sponsor events and activities to raise awareness about mental illness and the stigma associated with it.

“It’s amazing. They are not hiding anymore,” said Sharron Hedenkamp, executive director of The Meeting Place, one of 14 mental health clubhouses funded by the County.

The clubhouses serve as community meeting places and support settings for mental health clients, their friends and family and community members. They also help members improve their social skills and offer vocational training as part of their recovery.

“We created the exhibit to highlight the personal pain, for people to see the type of pain and emotions that stigma creates not only for the individuals but also their families,” added Hedenkamp who hopes to turn the photos into a travelling exhibit and show it at other clubhouses and places throughout the region.

 “They don’t hide their names. They don’t feel ashamed. Mental illness should be viewed just like any other illness. Mental illness is not something to be ashamed of.”

For more information about mental illness visit It’s Up to Us, the County’s stigma reduction and suicide prevention campaign. Help for a mental health challenge or substance abuse issue, is also available at the County’s Access and Crisis Line at (888) 724-7240.

At the exhibit, clubhouse members will be wearing the T-shirt below.