City Health Department unveils new mural at JFK Airport Terminal 4 to address stigma around mental illness

The city Health Department unveils a new mental health-themed mural at JFK Airport Terminal 4 on Aug. 3. (Photo by Marino Photographer Paul Jamali)

A new mural aimed at reducing the stigma toward those suffering from mental illness was unveiled by the city Health Department at John F. Kennedy International Airport’s (JFK) Terminal 4 in the Arrival Hall on Aug. 3. 

The mural, titled “SEE US, REALLY SEE US”, was conceptualized and created by members of the Venture House ClubHouse in Jamaica, an organization that supports people living with serious mental health conditions. JFK’s Terminal 4 was chosen as the mural’s final site because of the high level of foot traffic, amplifying the message of the importance of mental health and stigma reduction.

“We are always looking for ways to ensure that all of our guests and the entire T4 community feel seen, heard and recognized,” said Roel Huinink, president and CEO of JFKIAT, the operator of Terminal 4. “We are proud to partner with the New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene, NYC Mural Arts, and our community partners on this exceptional project to break the stigma around mental health and raise awareness around the resources available to support mental well being.”

Roel Huinink, president and CEO of JFKIAT, the operator of Terminal 4. (Photo by Marino Photographer Paul Jamali)

The mural is created as part of the NYC Mural Arts Project, which brings together people with serious mental health conditions, community members, certified peer specialists, and local muralists to collaborate on a mental-health-themed mural. The Mural Arts Project is facilitated through Brooklyn Community Services and funded by the city Health Department. 

(Photo by Marino Photographer Paul Jamali)

“The NYC Mural Arts Project confronts stigma around mental illness, and promotes community, compassion, and respect,” said city Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan. “Our approach to mental illness is about building connections. These murals connect those with lived experience with mental illness to each other, their fellow New Yorkers and the fabric of our city.” 

According to Dr. Michael McRae, acting executive deputy commissioner of Mental Hygiene, the NYC Mural Arts Project facilitates a deeper understanding around mental health conditions, “strengthening and uplifting the experiences of communities that co-created these murals.”

“Behind this incredible mural are countless hours of conversations and connections around mental health,” McRae said. 

Hersh Parekh, director of Government Affairs at the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey, said the mural at JFK is significant to the New Yorkers, and millions of international travelers who come through Terminal 4 annually. 

“The Port Authority is intensely focused on community partnerships and opportunities, especially at our airports. It is good to see that the result of such collaboration is a beautiful and inspirational public art installation, one that will be enjoyed by travelers and delivers a strong message about the importance of mental health,” Parekh said. 

Hersh Parekh, director of Government Affairs at the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey. (Photo by Marino Photographer Paul Jamali)

Research shows that the best way to reduce stigma is for people living with serious mental health conditions to share their experience, recovery and resources while providing hope and encouragement to peers and community members. 

An evaluation of the Mural Arts Project found that of people who participated in the community engagement workshops, 65% had a positive change in their stigma towards people with mental illness and 58% showed an increase in mental health awareness and education.

When the NYC Mural Arts Project starts the process to create a new mural, the program first solicits mental health program partners. Then, professional muralists are selected, ideally those who have created public art in the chosen neighborhoods. 

Brooklyn Community Services, which has been contracted to operate the program, then identifies various community partner entities including non-profit, for-profit and elected officials to support the promotion of the project in the chosen community.

During the planning phase, the mental health program partner will host a series of public events and workshops where mental health program participants and community collaborators can have an open space to discuss mental health and form bonds between people experiencing mental illness and their fellow community members. 

From there, the collaborators will create a mental health theme and correlating design, and engage in an iterative feedback process with the broader community. Once the design is finalized, community members will come together to paint the mural panels at public events and finally unveil the mural to the larger community. 

The mural production technology utilizes Polytab material as a canvas and the panels are glued in place, resulting in a high quality and durable mural. The entire process from start to end takes approximately a full year to complete. 

Certified Peer Specialist Michael Turgeon, a trained and certified peer advocate who has a mental health condition, said he was proud to have served as a peer counselor with the NYC Mural Arts Project in collaboration with Venture ClubHouse. 

“It was truly an amazing opportunity to work with such dedicated and creative peers and staff, the NYC Community, and an incredible NYC artist to develop a large-scale artwork that will have a lasting legacy of breaking down the stigma surrounding mental illness and at the same time, beautifying the city,” Turgeon said.  

For muralist Giannina Gutierrez, who grew up in Jamaica, it was an extremely rewarding and fulfilling experience with NYC MAPS this year. 

“Coming back here working as a professional artist was humbling, I truly felt the responsibility of ensuring that all voices were heard. That we all are seen for who we really are, not as the stigmas people perpetuate about mental illness,” Gutierrez said. “From concepts to actual execution of the mural, and a few obstacles, we triumphed. My hope is that it speaks to us all and really creates the awareness we need to treat each other with love and compassion.”

Muralist Giannina Gutierrez, of Jamaica, speaks at the unveiling of the new mental health-themed mural at JFK Airport Terminal 4 on Aug. 3. (Photo by Marino Photographer Paul Jamali)

Juliet Douglas, CEO of Venture House, said they’re grateful to the city Health Department for supporting the meaningful initiative.  

“While mural painting was the vehicle, the end goal of this undertaking was to stamp out stigma, through the coming together of a diverse group, with and without mental health conditions, focused on a common purpose, sharing ideas, exploring assumptions, and embracing our commonality. Getting up close and personal with those whom we may fear, helps to dispel misconception and chips away at our prejudices,” Douglas said. 

The Health Department developed the NYC Mural Arts Project and launched it in 2016. Since the launch, the program has created 10 large-scale murals and two mural-benches.

The Health Department and Brooklyn Community Services are seeking CBO partners to begin the process of mural design for 2023. 

“Programs like the NYC Mural Arts Project create space for communities to come together and support one another’s mental health,” said Brooklyn Community Services President and Executive Director Janelle Farris. “Brooklyn Community Services is proud to partner with NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and other human services agencies, to fight the stigma associated with mental illness both in Brooklyn and beyond.”