An art installation that improves mental health

Sharon Howard-Butler and Brit Till

World Mental Health Day is October 10 — a good time to think about what you can do to help people with mental health disorders and improve your own mental health.

New York is a tough place to be if you have a neuropsychiatric illness. Big cities are stressful, and the Big Apple is one of the largest. People are busy. The majority have no time for those who can’t keep up. Even if they did have time, most would have little or no idea how to interact with someone with a brain disorder like schizophrenia.

So people who are affected are excluded. This can make their condition worse.

This year for Schizophrenia Awareness Week, we designed and installed an interactive art experience in collaboration with Ian Fowler and Glowing Bulbs, Inc. at One Art Space, a gallery in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York City to help address this. It was part of the Hearing Voices of Support initiative we developed through The Bloc for our client Linda Stalters, CEO of the Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America (SARDAA), a nonprofit organization that works tirelessly to provide support, change perceptions, and even change legislation to improve the lives of people affected by schizophrenia-related disorders.

Interestingly, the interactive art installation had mental health benefits not just for people affected, but also for the visitors to the gallery.

It was a safe space that allowed reflection, sharing, understanding, and connection. It gave people affected by schizophrenia-related illnesses the opportunity to share their stories and talk about what has helped them in a memorable way — as a light, sound, and video experience.

As people walked through the art space, they activated individual light beams through sensor plates plotted on the gallery floor. Visitors became spotlit — creating an intimate space of connection. Stepping on the sensor plate also triggered a soundtrack of a person affected by schizophrenia telling their story. After a 5-second delay, a video projection of that person talking appeared on the wall. Visitors commented that the experience helped them truly hear each person’s story, so they were better able to understand and empathize with what these individuals had been through.

While it was reminiscent of auditory hallucinations (up to eight voices could be heard at any one time), it was carefully designed with directional speakers so as not to risk triggering an episode for anyone who might have the condition walking through.

But it did certainly have an affect on people. It was something special they were experiencing. People opened up, some for the first time, about having a family member or friend with a serious mental illness: a brother, sister, granddad, grandma, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, boyfriend, girlfriend, or friend.

Around half of the participants went from the gallery to an adjacent “meet and greet” room where they could talk to people who were affected, some of whom had told their stories in the installation and others whom had traveled from across the country to be there.

Two young women studying social work came across the exhibition on their way home from class. They couldn’t believe it. They felt it was a gift. They said it was relevant and so special, an evening they would never forget.

A couple on their way to dinner was trying to decide whether they should just pop in. A big guy leaving the installation said to them, “It’s amazing, you have to see it.” The woman from the couple replied, “You’re with people who have put it on. Part of their crew.” He said, “No, I’m not. I’m a cop,” and flashed his badge.

One woman in her 40s left the installation on the verge of tears. She rushed out then doubled back to visit the meet and greet room. We learned that her first boyfriend had a psychotic episode when they were dating. She had been carrying the guilt of abandoning him for years. She was counseled for the next couple of hours by people who had been through similar experiences to him — and was reassured that she had done the best she could. It was a cathartic experience for her. She left with greater peace of mind.

Quite often, we saw the same people coming back, the second time with family or friends.

People were interviewed as they exited the gallery and completed a survey about their experience of the installation. It was clear it had changed perceptions around the condition and increased empathy: as a result of going through the installation, 80% of visitors wanted to do more to help those with schizophrenia-related illnesses.

Many visitors commented that they thought the installation should travel. Our client is applying for grants to make that happen.

Art has the power to change the way we think and feel. It also can drive engagement and even action that can help improve the mental health of others and, through giving, help us heal ourselves, making big cities like New York — and the world — a better place.

To find out more (hear the stories and leave comments of support) visit:


Creative Director/Writer: Sharon Howard-Butler

Creative Director/Art Director: Brit Till

Agency: The Bloc

Director/Producer: Ian Fowler

Sound and Light Installation: Glowing Bulbs, Inc.

Cameraman: Craig Kabrhel

Editors: Ian Fowler/Matt Butler/Craig Kabrhel

Music: Rafael May/Evan Pinciaro

Client: Linda Stalters - CEO SARDAA