UMass Medical School drama therapy mental illness patients

Good News Notes:

“In the play “Lost & Found,” there is a king, a queen, a princess and a wise man. The characters are reading the lines on their scripts.

But those “actors” are not real actors from a drama series.  

They are a group of people struggling with mental illness who are either stuck in the dark or in the process of recovery, going through a novel and innovative treatment — drama therapy.  

Traditional methods of treating patients with mental illness include treatments such as medication and psychotherapy. These might work for a portion of patients, but not for another group of people who carry limitations to certain medicine and who don’t feel like sharing their trauma through talk therapy.  

“Many patients just didn’t want to talk about that. So painful, like the scar, the wound is so deep,” said Dr. Xiaoduo Fan, psychiatrist of the UMass MIND program, the community outreach program of the Psychotic Disorders Program at UMass Medical School. “But if you don’t open the scar, how can you recover?”  

Virtual co-active therapeutic theater production

This May, UMass MIND hosted a play, “Lost & Found: A Message of Hope,” in collaboration with Lesley University for a virtual co-active therapeutic theater production.  

The script of the play was developed by participants to symbolize their personal mental health challenges and recovery journeys, telling a heartfelt story of hope, family and recovery that applies beyond those who are biologically related to them. It was performed after eight weeks of rehearsals and preparations.  

Viewers were also invited to share their own message of hope that were later made into a poem.  

This was the second pilot program, paving the way for a real three-year drama-therapy study. 

Powerful results 

In 2019, UMass MIND held its first, in-person pilot trial. Fan said they were unsure if the technique would work, as no one had ever done it before.  

Even so, the result was powerful, Fan said. Patients who would rather be treated with nonverbal therapy were more open minded to sharing their experiences through the program, he said.

As a result, the outcome gave them the confidence to continue doing the novel therapy and later to apply for a National Endowment for the Arts grant for $95,000.  

Project begins this fall

The three-year NEA-funded project will begin this fall.  

The project will enroll six participants for 12-week sessions into a randomized and controlled research study of multiple drama therapy groups using the “Co-Active Therapeutic Theater Manualized Model,” which was developed by Laura Wood, associate professor of drama therapy at Lesley University. The sessions will lead into a public in-person performance that will tentatively be held in early to mid-November.  

Participants suffer from different types of mental health issues including cognitive repair, experiences of extreme-levels of trauma or dealing with feelings of shame and stigma.

Community partners

In addition to Lesley University, the project is also partnering with mental health organizations in the Worcester area including Open Sky Community Services, Genesis Club and Community Healthlink.  

Those community mental health organizations are helping raise awareness for the program, educate their members and recruit people to participate in the therapy.  

“I think that the program itself is such an opportunity for people with serious mental illness, to share their voice and to share their experience and rediscover, or maybe discover for the first time, their own creative ability,” said Lisa Brennan, executive director of Genesis Club. “In many ways, I do think from the last time this program ran, and listening to our members who are involved, they talked about feeling very empowered.” 

Along with Fan, Kalea Barger, soon-to-be senior at Clark University majoring in psychology, and Victor Agwu, a second-year medical student at UMass Medical School, co-lead and help run the drama-therapy program. 

Though not a drama major, Barger had done theater in high school, which fostered her interest in being involved with a drama-based community program. For Agwu, he was involved with mental health work before he started medical school which drew him easily to the program, he said….”

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