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Cure Alliance Hits the Big Apple for Brain Week

by Hakon Heimer

Volunteers at Brain Awareness Week

Volunteers Elliott Koch and Heather McKellar collecting petition signatures at the NYU Brain Fair.

New York City is the epicenter of Brain Awareness Week, sponsored by the Dana Alliance on Brain Initiatives, a yearly celebration of the 3-pound organ that runs the show. I made the trek to the Big Apple to join Cure Alliance for Mental Illness cofounder Robin Cunningham and local volunteer Elliott Koch for some of the BraiNY events at the invitation of organizer Heather McKellar of the New York University Neuroscience Institute.

At the March 12 NYU Brain Fair, an incredible range of people from elementary school kids to senior citizens came by to see real brain slices, participate in educational games and attend lectures on brain health. Particularly popular were lectures on Staying Sharp and Enhancing Memory: Fact or Fiction?

Elliott and I spent the afternoon talking with people about the need for more research into mental illness and collecting signatures for our petition to the President and Congress, and the response was overwhelming. There were few among this highly motivated crowd who passed our table without signing!

Stories of mental illness collide

In the evening, Elliott and I made our way to the nightspot Littlefield in Brooklyn, which doesn’t look like much at 7:00 p.m on a Wednesday evening. But a few minutes later, when they open the big doors of the old, nondescript warehouse facade, it becomes a popular Brooklyn bar and stage that hosts everything from retro-reggae nights to a story telling event about mental illness.

Robin telling his story at the Story Collider

Robin telling his story at the Story Collider

We were there to hear Robin Cunningham describe the terrifying onset of schizophrenia: “At 3:30 PM on the second Sunday of April of 1956, Satan spoke to me for the first time,” he began. Soon he is joined by the voices of other demons and eventually the 13-year-old boy is overwhelmed by delusions that he has special powers to save the world … if he can only avoid stepping on cracks. Like the ones all over the hardwood floors at his school.

The March 12 event was staged by Story Collider, a live story telling project. Inspired by The Moth radio show, Story Collider gives storytellers 10 minutes to tell a tale with a science angle. For this evening, cofounder Ben Lillie and producer Erin Barker had gathered a group that included writer Anica Rissi, social worker John Jay Reed, neuroscientist Deena Walker, and photographer DeseRae Stage, founder of the Live Through This project, a which collects the stories of suicide attempt survivors.

Some of the talks will be posted over time at the Story Collider website–you can already listen to Deena Walker’s story of her own and her sister’s struggles with mental illness. You can see a low resolution of Robin’s talk on Cure Alliance’s YouTube channel, and we’ll alert readers if a high-quality podcast is posted at Story Collider.

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