As Lisa Barndollar was leaving a receptionist job five years ago, she asked her boss of a year and a half if she would have hired her had she known Barndollar has mental illness. The woman said no. That conversation could have sent Barndollar, 59, in one of two directions – to the darkness or the light.
She chose the latter and has committed herself to helping the world understand that a person’s mental illness is a part of them, not the whole. And that treatment works. Barndollar now has her biggest audience yet: the baggage claim area at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport.
The airport and the Community Behavioral Health Association, which represents New Hampshire’s 10 community mental health centers, partnered to bring the Deconstructing Stigma campaign to the airport. Wednesday, they unveiled portraits of 10 people, including three from New Hampshire, each with their story of living with and managing their mental illness.
The partners chose to hang the images in the baggage claim area because nearly 1.6 million people pass through each year, it’s a gathering spot for many of the airport’s 2,300 employees, and it’s a space open to the public.
“The volunteers in this project are more than just statistics or nameless faces. They are mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, lawyers, doctors, engineers, musicians, and each one has been affected by mental illness,” said Tom Malafronte, the airport’s deputy director, at the unveiling. “When we were approached with this opportunity, there was no doubt in our minds. We immediately said yes because we recognize the immense importance of this topic.”
Barndollar said she started sharing her story in part because of that conversation with her boss.
“That just irritated me, to say the least,” Barndollar said in an interview. “That’s when I was kind of really hell-bent on showing people that, see, anyone can have it.”
McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, launched the campaign in 2016 with an exhibit at Boston Logan International Airport. Manchester-Boston Regional Airport will host it for at least a year.
“I really wanted to be a part of it because there are a lot of people that don’t know I have mental illness, and I don’t think we’d ever suspect that because I am quote, unquote high functioning,” Barndollar said. “My message is, ‘(Mental illness) doesn’t have to overtake you. You can live a successful, happy, and healthy life.’”
Sarah Horne of Manchester, another face in the campaign, shared a similar message at Wednesday’s event.
“I am a mom. I have a successful career. I have meaningful relations with my friends and family. I volunteer with local organizations,” Horne said. “I also live with mental illness.”
She said she was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder when she was 8. At 13, she tried to take her life. She said the support of her parents saved her life.
Barndollar was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder about 11 years ago.
She said she felt misunderstood and stigmatized by comments from her stepmother, who talked about her illness as a brain chemistry problem that couldn’t be treated. She learned to keep her illness to herself, fearing negative comments and misunderstanding from others.
“I thought, something is wrong with me, you know,” Barndollar said. “I felt all of me was mental illness.”
The conversation with her boss changed her thinking.
“Who knows where it could have brought me, but it made me angry instead,” she said. “This is just a part of me and I can still do things, and I can still have a life and I can be successful in life as long as it’s managed correctly.”