Severe mental illness is rarely talked about publicly, let alone referenced proudly and unapologetically on a T-shirt.
Graphic designer Michelle Hammer is hoping to change that — by starting a conversation about schizophrenia through her eye-catching designs as part of her company, Schizophrenic.NYC.
The company, which sells everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs and bracelets, launched in 2015. Through the business, Hammer, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 22, hopes to change how New York City sees the chronic mental health disorder.
An estimated 1.1 percent of the world’s population has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, with approximately 3.5 million people in the United States living with the disorder. According to several studies, 25 percent of those living with schizophrenia recover completely, while 50 percent see mental health improvements over a 10-year period. An estimated 25 percent of people diagnosed with the disorder do not improve over time.
Those who live with the disorder may seem like they are out-of-touch with reality to others, sometimes experiencing delusions and hallucinations. Hammer says her schizophrenia often manifests itself as vivid "daydreams" that often turn into intense conversations with herself.
“I can sometimes get so lost in a daydream that people have to snap me out of it,” she tells The Mighty. “Sometimes I get delusional and think of entire stories that I believe happened in the past when in fact they haven’t.”
Hammer started conceptualizing her designs in May 2015 after having an encounter with a man she suspected also lived with schizophrenia on a New York City subway. The man was talking to himself and seemed disconnected from reality. Hammer says she immediately saw herself reflected in the man's behavior. In that moment, she realized that without familial support, she could also be struggling to find stability.
She then decided to use her graphic design skills to create products based around her experience with schizophrenia, hoping her designs could benefit people like the man on the subway. As a result, not only does Schizophrenic.NYC spread awareness of misconceptions and stigma surrounding schizophrenia, but the products also give back. A portion of each purchase goes to mental health organizations, including Fountain House and the New York chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
One of Hammer's designs is based on a Rorschach test, a common inkblot test people with mental illness are given during psychological testing. Hammer says when people who live with schizophrenia look at the test unmedicated, they see if from a different perspective. Her designs try to mimic that perspective, using vibrant colors and patterns to present a new way of viewing the black and white test.
"What I did was take that test and switched up the colors and patterns, so now everyone is forced to look at it from a different perspective," she says in a video describing her T-shirt line.
Other designs available in the fashion line feature clever slogans inspired by symptoms people with schizophrenia usually experience (including paranoia and delusions) to create affirming messages. One of those is even the tagline for the company: "Don't be paranoid, you look great."
Though the company is hyper-focused on dispelling stigma and spreading awareness in New York, the products created by Schizophrenic.NYC ship all over the country. Hammer also says she isn't ruling out expanding her line to make a broader impact.
“I do think about going national and would love to,” she tells The Mighty. “But that is something I plan for in the future. Right now, I’m keeping it local.”