This story contains references to suicide. If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call or text 988.
As the sun set over Philadelphia, dozens of white figures outside City Hall began to glow, a point of light radiating from inside each human-like lantern’s chest. Each was handcrafted from paper and wire to honor someone who died by suicide or struggled with mental illness.
“Too often we see people suffering in silence,” said Emily Norton Ashinhurst, executive director of the Irish Diaspora Center, which organized the one-night exhibit.
But on Thursday evening, the more than 100 characters lit up Dilworth Plaza and were surrounded by people determined to normalize the conversation and treatment of mental illness.
» READ MORE: Talking about suicide on college campuses can help save a life
The one-night exhibit, titled Lights in the Darkness, was the culmination of a month-long community program to raise awareness of mental health organized by the Irish Diaspora Center of Philadelphia, an immigrant support organization based in Havertown. As part of the initiative, residents of the Philadelphia area affected by mental illness or suicide were asked to work with Irish artist Tom Meskell to create a life-size sculpture.
Meskell specializes in creating art with communities and has done similar art installations in Ireland. Together with collaborator Tommy Casby, who is also an Irish artist, and volunteers from the Irish Diaspora Centre, he ran five two-day workshops through September.
On the first day of each workshop, participants built body parts for the life-size lanterns by bending wires and gluing light fixtures together. Then Meskall guided them in assembling the figures and wrapping them in white paper.
The final product and process honor people who have struggled with mental health, Meskall said. People in crisis often feel like there is no way for things to get better. Likewise, when artists from the Meskall community arrive at his studios, they often struggle to imagine how piles of wire and paper could become sculptures. But then they do.
“There’s a process for everything,” he said. “If you stick with it, you’ll get there.”
On Thursday evening, a few dozen people gathered to celebrate the exhibit in a ceremony that included an interfaith service offering a prayer for people living with mental illness. Speakers spoke about the importance of ending the persistent taboo surrounding discussions of mental health.
Ashinhurst, the event organizer, lost her husband to suicide in 2018. The pain still hits her in waves, she told the crowd, but she draws strength from her community, she has no therefore not to go through the tragedy alone.
Mayor Jim Kenney reminded those gathered of 988, a new national mental health and suicide hotline. “It’s okay not to be well, and it’s okay to ask for help,” he said.
Approximately 175 people commit suicide each year in Philadelphia. The number of teens who have suicidal thoughts or have attempted suicide has increased in recent years, according to the city’s Department of Public Health.
» READ MORE: What to know about 988, a new national mental health helpline
Jordan Burnham, of Minding Your Mind, a nonprofit dedicated to ending the stigma around mental health, shared in his keynote that he attempted suicide when he was 18. He suffered from depression and said he needed to hear that he had a voice, he belonged, and that he was not alone.
He read a letter he recently wrote to his younger self.
“Please just live for today because I promise tomorrow, and every day after, will be a little better,” he implored the 18-year-old himself, enjoying of the insight of the 15 years that have passed since he tried to end his life. .
After the ceremony, the crowd walked around the lanterns.
The light sculptures posed anonymously, with no information about who assembled them or in whose honor. But each was unique and recognizable by its creators.
Among the white lights was a figure built by Ashinhurst’s 10-year-old daughter in honor of her father.
The art installation gave Ashinhurst, her daughter and the dozens of others who joined them a way to process the pain of mental illness or the devastating loss of a loved one, she said, “and to be able to make something beautiful out of it”.
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