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Exhibit examines the social evolution of mental health

The Changing Face of What is Normal from Angela Penny
What is the definition of normal? Over 25 percent of the US population over age 18 suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder.

Psychiatric professionals have been using the DSM, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders since 1947 to try to classify people. An examination of this controversial tool is part of a temporary exhibit at the Exploratorium in San Francisco which examines how our perception of “normal” shifts over time.

“It’s a cultural ideal,” says curator Pamela Winfrey.

Frank C. was institutionalized in 1945 because he was perceived as being mentally ill. At a restaurant, he was served on a chipped plate and took it personally. He started kicking garbage cans in the street.

“He never really got out,” Winfrey says. “He's the guy who we theorized was gay and was really having a hard time.”

We know about him and because his suitcase 466 others because their suitcases were discovered in the attic of the Willard Psychiatric Center in upstate New York, when the building was destroyed in 1995. Now it's part of an exhibit at the Exploratorium called The Changing Face of Normal: Mental Health.  

Frank C. lived at the hospital from 1945 through 1949. His official diagnosis at the time was Dementia praecox, “which is a huge umbrella for the language of the time,” Winfrey says. “A lot of conditions had that diagnosis.”

Frank C.’s doctors suspected latent homosexual desires – and Winfrey notes that his situation was very much a product of the times he grew up in. His life might have been very different if he was born 50 years later.

“In San Francisco, he would have had a huge community. He would have been part of a place where he is normal. I think it was 1972 that they took homosexuality out of the DSM,” Winfrey says.

The DSM’s controversial fifth edition was published in May of 2013. The first edition came out about 60 years ago, when they noticed that men were returning from WWII and displaying erratic symptoms. But at the time, Winfrey says there was no name for their condition.

“If you get the language, then you can also get the statistics and the data behind the language – you say 50 percent of the guys that were coming back from World War II had what we would say is PTSD. The thing about the DSM is that it's a really important book, because if you're not listed in here, and you have a condition you can't get covered by insurance.”

But these issues don’t touch everyone’s lives evenly, and are often taboo. So in putting together this exhibit, Winfrey was partially motivated by a desire to humanize the mental health community.

There are also six different monitors with six different attitudes towards the DSM: three people that have been personally diagnosed with the DSM and three who are clinicians. One of them is Sally Zinman, a counselor at PEERS, she has been an activist for 35 years.

“Although the people around me though I had a breakdown … for me it was a breakout,” Zinman says. She was locked in a room during the 70s as part of her treatment.

“I vowed when I was in this room that someday I would be back to do something about this and is what I’ve done with the rest of my life”

This exhibit is a new approach for the Exploratorium and the response has been overwhelmingly positive according to Winfrey.  She hopes visitors will reflect on these questions, and how even today, what we consider normal is continuously changing. 

The Changing Face of Normal: Mental Health is scheduled to remain at the Exploratorium through April 2014 and there is an accompanying book. 

Crosscurrents Science & Technology