Jon Bauer no longer looks at suicide and mental illness the way he once did. Bauer’s daughter, Megan, died by suicide on March 27, 2013, and amid the grief and pain, Bauer, of Grand Rapids, admits to being an unwitting participant in the conspiracy of silence that tends to shrouds such deaths in secrecy.
It’s one of those small things but reflective of society’s attitude toward suicide. After Megan died, Bauer found himself lingering over obituaries, noting the ones that cloaked the reason for death in vague euphemisms such as “died unexpectedly” or “died suddenly.” He was convinced that a significant percentage of these sudden deaths were in fact suicides.
“I wish I would have known what I know now when Megan died because my obituary would say, ‘Megan died after a long battle with mental illness,'” Bauer said.
That same impulse to deal candidly with a subject that brings an uncomfortable silence in most people is what led Bauer to create and organize “What’s Left: Lives Touched by Suicide,” a multimedia art exhibit aimed at reducing the stigma that surrounds suicide and mental illness.
“There were 41,126 suicides in the United States last year,” Bauer said. “Some things we do are going to be repeated, but we got to try different things.”
When it opened at the MacRostie Art Center in Grand Rapids earlier this year, it drew more than 700 people on opening day, reaffirming an underlying premise behind the exhibit: Suicide and mental illness affects almost everybody. And now, the exhibit is coming to Rochester, opening from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 7, at Rochester Civic Theatre. It runs until Jan. 29.
“You can’t find anybody over the age of 17 who hasn’t been affected by somebody with mental illness,” Bauer said. “It’s just the way it is. I just got fed up with seminars and schools being afraid to talk about it.”
The exhibit features painting, poetry, sculpture, graffiti, glass, weaving and photography from more than 50 Minnesota artists. It also include an audio interactive phone booth that includes recordings and stories from survivors.
Bauer said the exhibit was created with the aim of being shown around the state. Rochester became the first of a multicity tour after Mary Gorfine, program director for the Rochester-Olmsted Youth Commission, read an article about the exhibit and called Bauer to ask if it could come to Rochester.
Gorfine said mental illness became a focus of the youth commission four years ago after two area students took their own lives.
“The main thing I’d like to get across — and the thing we have learned as a youth commission — is that in most cases, suicide is preventable,” Gorfine said. “There’s still this stigma that surrounds mental illness and prevents people from getting help and treatment.”
Yet, Bauer admits to getting pushback from mental health organizations and counselors who worried that his exhibit might encourage what it was designed to prevent. Its focus on the aftermath of suicides and the shattered lives left in its wake might prove an inducement for a vulnerable person, they told him.
So far, the reaction from some vulnerable teens, Bauer said, is that it has been a life-saver. For his phone booth installation, Bauer, who works as a development director for a public radio station, interviewed nearly 60 survivors and people who had attempted suicide. One woman he interviewed had tried to kill herself when she was 17 years old.
“When I interviewed her, it was like me talking to my daughter, things my daughter could not tell me,” Bauer said. “She told me what the depths of depression is and how it affects your life, and it was like a light went off. I could forgive my daughter. It was not that I was ever mad at her, but I finally understood why this could happen.”
Bauer said he has taken the exhibit to schools. At one school that deals with at-risk youth, students participated in a roundtable discussion after going through the exhibit. Bauer recalls two boys in particular who were moved by the experience. One called it a “life-saver.”
“I said, ‘why did it save your life?’ And they said, ‘because we now understand that there are other people who struggle the way we do.'”