Minneapolis, MN

Dr. Sherman of the University of Minnesota Medical School sheds new light on mental health and theatre

Abdi Isaaq

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MINNEAPOLIS, MN - The journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice has published a study titled "Shining a spotlight on issues of mental health in musical theatre and ways psychologists can help: Perspectives of theatre professionals." This paper is a collaboration between Dr. Michelle Sherman, a professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School, and two of her colleagues.

Their research examines how mental illness is portrayed in theatre through the eyes of professional actors, directors, and choreographers and how a behavioral health consultant (BHC) may assist both performers and audience members in dealing with psychological topics.

"When you really get into character, your blood pressure goes up, your heart rate increases and your mind and body can't differentiate between reality and acting," said Dr. Sherman. "Your body goes through this emotional experience in intense ways, and that's hard to just turn off."

Dr. Sherman's groundbreaking study entailed in-depth interviews with fifteen experienced theatre performers and directors to gain a deeper understanding of how psychological themes might affect the production team and audience and the possible advantages and duties of a BHC.

"Theoretically, theater has the potential to help both the actors and audience by providing information about mental illness, challenging stereotypes, reducing stigma, decreasing the sense of isolation, providing role models and instilling hope," Dr. Sherman said. "It's possible that the addition of a BHC could help theatre companies achieve these goals."

Mentally ill people may feel less alone when they see mental illness depicted on stage, say study participants. Theater may also spark discussion, decrease stigma, promote empathy for those living with mental illness, and even inspire activism.

Observing mental illness in the media or on stage can be stressful for almost two-thirds of research participants. Teen suicide rates climbed considerably after the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why was released. Dr. Sherman advises marketing materials to include a trigger warning to stress the program's content depicting mental health difficulties.

Moreover, research participants indicated several functions for a BHC to aid both the audience (e.g., post-show talks) and actors (e.g., self-care skills, a portrayal of mental illness in an authentic and non-stigmatizing way, setting boundaries between their character and personal life).

Furthermore, Dr. Sherman plans to engage other Twin Cities theatre companies to explore the BHC role's viability and utility. She also intends to get comments from the audience on the BHC.

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