A new wall at Bangor’s airport tells stories of people’s mental health struggles

The latest installation of an international campaign aimed at reducing the stigma associated with mental illnesses was unveiled at Bangor International Airport on Monday.

Massachusetts-based McLean Hospital launched the public awareness campaign, “Deconstructing Stigma: Changing Attitudes About Mental Health,” in 2016 with a large installation in Boston Logan International Airport. Since then, the hospital has partnered with airports and other venues worldwide to feature volunteers who share their stories about their experiences living with mental illness.

At Bangor International Airport, photos and stories of men and women from Maine and beyond who have experienced mental health challenges fill two walls. The first wall is in the airport lobby across from the check-in desks, and the other is on the second floor near the gates.

The Bangor installation was brought to life through a partnership between McLean Hospital, the airport, the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Northern Light Acadia Hospital. Bangor International Airport is the first site in Maine to host the campaign.

Leaders from the organizations involved said their hope is that the more than 500,000 people who pass through the Bangor airport each year see the stories, understand they’re not alone in their struggles with mental health and know that seeking help is not a sign of weakness .

“I’ve seen firsthand the pain that mental health stigma can cause and the damage it inflicts,” said Dr. Rick Goggins, a psychiatrist and McLean Hospital medical director. “We know stigma is among the greatest barriers to people seeking mental health treatment, and that is unacceptable. No one should ever be afraid to seek care.”

Stories from four Mainers are included in Bangor’s installation, including Randy Liberty, commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections.

Randy Liberty, Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner stands in front of his photo and story, featured in the Bangor Airport’s new “Deconstructing Stigma” installation, unveiled Monday. Credit: Kathleen O’Brien/BDN

Liberty said he suffered from post-traumatic stress from his time in law enforcement and when he served in Iraq in 2004. As a law enforcement officer, he said handling “suicides, fatal accidents, death notifications — those are the things that stick with you and, if you don’t get help, can be problematic.”

When he returned from Iraq in 2005 and re-entered his career in law enforcement, Liberty said he was “quick to anger, quick to emotion, wouldn’t speak about what I experienced in Iraq without becoming emotional.” Liberty’s wife urged him to seek professional help. Now, he’s urging people in similar situations to do the same.

“As a leader, I felt it was my duty to share with people in my industry that there’s no shame in asking for help,” said Liberty, a former Kennebec County sheriff. “You and your families deserve to heal and not make the same mistake past generations made by self-medicating with alcohol or opiates.”

Kara Hay, Northern Light Acadia board chair and president of the Bangor social services agency Penquis, said the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on people’s mental health makes the need to break down the stigma surrounding mental illnesses and seeking help more important than ever .

Kara Hay, Northern Light Acadia Board Chair, speaks at the unveiling of an installation in Bangor International Airport that aims to increase awareness and reduce the stigma associated with mental illnesses. Credit: Kathleen O’Brien/BDN

“Before the pandemic, Northern Light Acadia had a waitlist of about 400 people seeking mental health support,” Hay said. “Since then our waitlist has grown a staggering 1,000 percent. More than 4,000 patients are in need of therapies such as support groups, outpatient therapy, substance use disorder treatment and more.”

The silver lining to the surge in people seeking mental health support, Hay said, means the awareness and acceptance of mental health struggles has also expanded.

“We need to understand that mental health challenges are very real and must be taken care of and addressed the same as we take care of heart disease, diabetes, and other medical health conditions,” Hay said.

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