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Michelle Hammer describes herself as "a schizophrenic New Yorker trying to change the way New York City sees mental health."
To achieve that mission, Michelle draws upon her passion for design — creating art while advocating to end the stigma associated with mental illness.
"I took art classes when I was young, and I took a career test in sixth grade that said I should be a graphic designer,” Michelle says. “It's always been my passion."
Her approach to creating the complex art that has become her signature style starts quite simply, with a sketch book and magic markers. Once an original drawing is complete, she photographs it, uploads it to her computer and continues to add multiple layers digitally. Each piece of art becomes a visual reminder of what was going on in her mind when it was created.
“Looking back, I can remember when I did certain pieces because of the details,” Michelle says. “But a lot of my anxiety is in there. It’s more detailed if I was really anxious."
And, while Michelle recognized early on that she had a passion for art, it wasn’t always clear to her that she had an illness. As a teenager, Michelle found it extremely difficult to trust anyone around her, including her family. After graduating high school and going to college, the same paranoid feelings — this time about her roommate — resurfaced. This is when Michelle realized she needed professional help. It took a few years to find a doctor who correctly diagnosed her condition. But, then the clouds parted.
"Being diagnosed with schizophrenia was the best thing that ever happened to me," she says, "because then I could be treated in the right way."
Featuring Artwork in Fashion to Raise Awareness
In May 2015, at age 27, she combined her artistic talents and personal experiences to launch Schizophrenic.NYC, a clothing line with the mission of reducing stigma by starting conversations about mental health.
"My art and my advocacy work together. My goal is to just start the conversation. Let's just end the stigma. Let's just do it."
In addition to the colorful graphic designs based on the concept of Rorschach Test ink splatters, Michelle adds motivational slogans such as “It’s Not a Delusion, You Are Incredible” and “Don’t Be Paranoid, You Look Great.” Michelle sells her artwork and clothing on her website and at pop-up shops throughout New York.
Making an Impact by Furthering the Conversation
For the past two years, she has also exhibited her art at the Fountain House Gallery, which supports New York City artists living and working with mental illness — using their art to challenge the stigma.
“We're so excited to have Michelle here because of her enthusiastic personality,” explains Ariel Willmott, Director of Fountain House Gallery. “We have had the opportunity to show many of her works here since she became involved with the organization.”
Michelle Hammer at her pop-up store outside of Fountain Gallery in New York City.
Working with Fountain House Gallery and giving back to her community by raising awareness about mental illness are important to Michelle. Her goal is to encourage people to talk about mental health and to realize there is no shame in any kind of mental illness.
"In New York City, one in five New Yorkers has a mental health issue, but nobody talks about it because of the stigma," Michelle says. “That's what I'm doing. Just starting a conversation."
To further that conversation, Michelle has also participated in the HealtheVoices™ Conference, a groundbreaking leadership conference, created by Janssen, aimed at providing valuable content, thought-provoking conversation and networking opportunities for online health advocates who use social platforms to advocate for themselves and their communities.
"HealtheVoices™ has been a great opportunity," she says, noting that she has participated in the conference the past two years. “It has given me such a confidence boost."
A Bright Future
Not too long ago, Michelle didn’t know what the future held for her. Today, she is a confident, successful, New York City businesswoman who has turned her schizophrenia diagnosis into an opportunity to reduce stigma and improve life for others who are also living with mental illness.
"I am me. I am Michelle. I am a schizophrenic. I have brown hair. I live in Queens. It's all a part of me," she declares. "My art and my advocacy work together. My goal is to just start the conversation. Let's just end the stigma. Let's just do it!"
Watch the video below to learn more about Michelle, her art and her advocacy.