What does mental illness look like? The 99 Faces Project aims to reduce stigma, provide support

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Donald C. Bolduc of Stratham, NH, is working on his PhD. If you were to meet him on the street, do you think you’d be able to tell he was a doctoral candidate just by looking at him?  Here’s another challenge: Using your sense of vision, could you ascertain his military status? 

Perhaps his bearing signaled “armed forces” to you. If you figured that Donald Bolduc was affiliated with the military, you’d be right. Now that we’ve acknowledged your gift of observation, let me ask you: Do you think your eyes can tell you whether he’s on active duty or a veteran? 

If you happened to meet Donald Bolduc at a military hospital, do you think his looks could tell you about his military rank? At vet hospitals, it’s often assumed that well-dressed people not sporting a Veterans Administration name tag are former officers.  Gazing at Donald Bolduc, would you think “officer” or “enlisted”? What branch of the service did he serve in? 

Now, if you found out his name you could use your very own eyes to look him up online. Then you’d discover that this native Granite Stater is a veteran soldier, a former Green Beret, in fact.  And you’d be surprised that irrespective of the guess you’d made about his grade, you were correct, for Donald Bolduc was a “maverick,” an enlisted man who became an officer. 

Now you know the former Commander of Special Operations Command Africa retired as a brigadier general after a distinguished 32-year career. Now you know General Donald Bolduc was awarded two Purple Hearts for wounds received on the battlefield, and that he won five Bronze Stars with a “V” device for valor.  And now you know something from what your gaze gleaned from your online sources, something you didn’t know about Bolduc just by looking at him: This distinguished soldier suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

Retired Brigadier General Donald C. Bolduc, of New Hampshire. Courtesy Photo

General Bolduc’s courage was not limited to the battlefield.  Perhaps his most remarkable accomplishment as a warrior was speaking out publicly about his PTSD while on active duty.  It was not something active duty service members acknowledged, let alone talked about in public, because PTSD is considered a mental disorder.  For someone of General Bolduc’s high rank and high reputation to go public about his affliction was a victory in the war against the stigma of mental illness.

The General’s battles continue, here in civilian life. He is not alone. 

BG Donald C. Bolduc (USA, Ret.) is the key figure in an event sponsored by the Veterans Administration in conjunction with Dartmouth-Hitchcock, “A Brigadier General’s War to Remove Mental Health Stigma.” Bolduc will appear with Congressman Chris Pappas of New Hampshire First Congressional District at Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Medical Center, One Medical Center Drive, in Lebanon on May 13 from 5- 7 p.m.

General Bolduc and Congressman Pappas won’t be alone. They‘ll be backed up by 99 individuals, a cohort the size of an Army company. They won’t be there in person, which isn’t unusual in these times where video conferencing is available by clicking a cellphone app. But it won’t be Skype that brings the 99 to Lebanon, but an old-fashioned technology: Photography. 

This unique group of support personnel who’ve got General Bolduc’s back are enlisted in the “99 Faces Project: Portraits Without Labels” exhibit. Of the 99, two-thirds are diagnosed with a mental disorder on the bi-polar spectrum, and one-third are classified with an affliction on the schizophrenia spectrum. The remaining 33 are loved ones and caregivers for the others. 

There are no labels tagging the photos. A viewer may try to figure out which is which, but it may prove a mission impossible. According to Boston-based artist Lynda Michaud Cutreil, approximately 20 percent of Americans experiencing mental illness don’t “show” it.   Her photographs of the 99 are intended to challenges stereotypes about the “look” of mental illness. 

The 99 Faces installation is part of Cutreil’s art exhibit “The Many Faces of Our Mental Health Project,” which Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Medical Center in Lebanon will host for six months.  The exhibit also presents paintings, sculptures and videos displaying real people with mental health issues and those affected by their condition.  

Cutreils’ mission is to do away with the shame and disgrace attached to mental illness. Negative stereotypes not only discourage the afflicted from seeking help, but complicate the recovery of those who are receiving care. 

According to Cutreil, “A key to living well with any disability is to not be burdened with fear of stigma, but rather to have loving acceptance and inspiring role models.”

General Donald C. Bolduc is one of those models.

By the way, what’s your classification? What is your “look”?  Looks are skin deep. A Brigadier General’s War to Remove Mental Health Stigma and the 99 Faces Project seek to remove the stigma of mental illness by showing us that all of us, under the skin, are human beings, indistinguishable from one another in our shared humanity.

Congressman Chris Pappas, Dartmouth-Hitchcock and the Veterans Administration have mobilized in support of General Bolduc’s and Lynda Michaud Cutrell’s war to vanquish the stigma of mental illness. The public is invited to attend the event on a first-come, first-serve basis.