News & Opinion

New Discovery Place Exhibit Addresses Stigma of Mental Illness

Local staff adds 'A Path to Mindfulness'

Discovery Place exhibit, MIND MATTERS
The Path to Mindfulness includes a Mindfulness Room with applications designed to calm worried winds. All photos by Ryan Pitkin)

As patrons enter Mental Health: MIND MATTERS, a new exhibit opening up at Discovery Place Science on Saturday, Jan. 29, they’re asked to gauge a few aspects of their own mental health.

To their right, museumgoers can express their current state of mind, placing colored magnets at different heights on a board in a subjective way for which only they know the true translation, creating a sort of mood ring for all those who have passed through the exhibit. To the left, a chalkboard invites them to share a small victory they’ve accomplished that day.

These interactive introductions are part of the Path to Mindfulness, a collaboration between Discovery Place and Atrium Health that helps bring museumgoers into the right mind state to peruse the broader MIND MATTERS exhibit, which explores mental health through interactive experiences designed to raise awareness and normalize talking about psychological illness.

According to Heather Norton, chief science officer at Discovery Place, the Path to Mindfulness was designed to build relatability for museumgoers and emphasize the fact that the conversations explored in the exhibit are not just for those who are or know someone dealing with mental illness. 

“Although [the exhibit] does an exceptional job at assessing the mental health side of the equation, we felt that mental health is a part of overall health,” Norton told Queen City Nerve.  “So if we’re not suffering from a mental illness that doesn’t mean that there’s not something for all of us to learn and maybe consider adding to our lives.

“We wanted to have the complementary conversation around being mindful because we feel like, especially over the past many months, all of us have been grappling with feelings of stress or confusion, maybe depression, and this is something that maybe could be beneficial for everybody.” 

Discovery Place exhibit, MIND MATTERS
This contraption allows museumgoers to write down their worries and manually shred them.

The larger exhibit, produced by the Science Museum of Minnesota with Heureka, The Finnish Science Centre, Ciência Viva, and Cité de Sciences & L’industrie, consists of games, dioramas, multimedia presentations, and interactive experiences. One room, for example, enables patrons to experience what it’s like for those suffering with conditions such as schizophrenia to hear voices that aren’t there while attempting to answer simple questions. 

“It was so life-changing to me to have that experience,” Norton said of the voices room. “It’s about building empathy in really tangible ways, and I think that’s powerful, especially when it’s a topic that is for some cultures and families taboo. This is a way to make it a safe place to come into connection with this material and maybe leave with a different understanding or a different feeling about what it means to have a mental illness.” 

The Atrium Health connection

Atrium Health partnered with Discovery Place to present Mental Health: MIND MATTERS, and Dr. Wayne Sparks, Atrium’s senior medical director of Behavioral Health, was on hand at a media preview on Thursday. 

It was Sparks’s first time seeing the exhibit in full, though he and his team have been actively involved in creating the Path to Mindfulness during recent weeks. 

That new aspect of the exhibit doesn’t just consist of exercises that allow museumgoers to gauge their own state of mind, but offers techniques to help improve it. Those techniques range from a Buddha garden to a rock-stacking station to a “wind phone,” which allows museumgoers to speak with loved ones who have passed away — or express what they would say if they had the chance.

“I think that with so much distress, depression, and anxiety that people are dealing with right now, especially during COVID, it’s a very powerful and effective way for people to deal with their own distress, their own anxieties and depression — being able to focus on themselves, center themselves, relieve some of that distress,” Sparks said of the Path to Mindfulness. “So those are some powerful techniques for people to learn here if they don’t know them and take home to practice. That was an important part.”

Discovery Place exhibit, MIND MATTERS
One part of the exhibit tells the story of a man struggling with schizophrenia and how he would have been treated had he born in different time periods.

Sparks cited a recent national report that found that, while in “normal times” about 8% of adults could be expected to be experiencing symptoms of depression and/or anxiety at any given time, that number has risen to 33% during the pandemic. 

He noted that Atrium’s Behavioral Health department has seen increased volumes in all of its facilities — inpatient, outpatient and emergency departments.

However, Sparks was optimistic about the fact that people are at least seeking treatment, stating that Atrium’s 24-hour behavioral health call center received more than 130,000 calls in 2021.

He hoped Mental Health: MIND MATTERS can help continue to push back against the stigma that people suffering from mental illness face today. 

“It’s so important for psychological illness to be just like any other illness and talk about it and normalize the conversation,” he said, “so people who may be just like you and I and have some symptoms of depression or whatever illness can go get treatment and talk about it just like you would for diabetes or heart disease.” 

Mental Health: MIND MATTERS will run through April 10 and is included with admission to Discovery Place Science.  


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