Pooja Mehta, who has anxiety disorder, works as a project manager at Epic Systems, enjoys hiking and paddleboarding, and graduated from college last year with honors.
Starting Friday, the 22-year-old from Madison and four other local residents with mental illness or addiction problems will appear on billboards in Dane County in an effort to reduce the stigma of such conditions.
The yearlong campaign, part of Journey Mental Health Center’s 70th anniversary celebration, is called, “This is my Journey.”
“We’re going to put a face, a name, a personality to mental illness and help bring awareness to the Dane County community about what Journey does and how important it is,” said Mehta, who was diagnosed with anxiety six years ago and created the campaign as a volunteer at Journey.
Her billboard, which includes a photo of her, refers to her as an honors graduate living with anxiety. She majored in public health and biology at Duke University, where she graduated with distinction, meaning she defended a project before a faculty committee.
The other billboards will feature Peter Rossmeissl, a Journey worker and pastry chef who has psychosis; Jennifer King, a Journey worker and mother who is recovering from alcoholism; and Joe Mannchen, a Journey worker and videographer, and Martin Croak, a Journey board member and retired attorney, both of whom have bipolar disorder.
Eight billboards are being donated by Adams Outdoor Advertising. The company selects several nonprofits each year, such as Badger Honor Flight and Underdog Pet Rescue, for free campaigns, said Tianna Vanderhei, manager of the program for Adams.
Journey started in 1948 as the Dane County Child Guidance Clinic, with doctors and nurses helping children in Madison maintain their “mental hygiene,” as it was called at the time.
By the 1960s, the organization was known as the Dane County Mental Health Center. It offered Madison’s first alcohol treatment program and launched Yahara House, a day treatment program for people with mental illness.
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After changing its name to Journey Mental Health Center in 2012, the nonprofit has continued to be a major safety net provider of mental health and addiction services in the county.
Featuring five people with mental illness or addiction on billboards, and others in social media and print publications, should help normalize the conditions and challenge stereotypes, said Brian Miller, Journey’s chief development officer.
“We’re highlighting the courage and the health that a lot of people find even while living with a mental health diagnosis,” Miller said.
“We think that there’s too much quick blame in society these days,” he said. “When something bad happens, certain people are quick to point to mental illness. We think that’s unfair and a misrepresentation.”
Mehta said the public often assumes that people with mental illness are dangerous or homeless. Her anxiety has caused panic attacks and “negative, derogatory self-talk,” but now is now under control with medication and therapy, she said.
As someone who is highly functional, Mehta said she is trying to offer positive examples of what it can mean to live with a mental illness. In addition to organizing the billboard campaign, she has an online effort called “Project: I Define Me.”
“If I want to see a change, I’m going to have to work for it,” Mehta said.
[Editor's note: The story has been corrected to reflect that Underdog Pet Rescue is the name of a nonprofit for which Adams Outdoor Advertising donated a billboard campaign.]