Psychologist Kathy Pike on The Role of Arts in Today's Mental Health Crisi

03/06/2017 10:04 am ET Updated Sep 30, 2017

Co-authored with Dr Yasmine Van Wilt, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Mellon Fellow at Union College, Kobalt/AWAL singer-songwriter, dramatist, academic, and contributor to Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global.

This is the third of a series of interviews with extraordinary people who are working in partnership with or using their skills and training as artists and humanists to improve their communities, challenge assumptions, and advance our understanding of the human condition.

Dr. Kathleen M. Pike is Director of the Global Mental Health Program and is Associate Director of the Health and Aging Policy Fellowship Program at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. She is also Supervising Psychologist in the Eating Disorders Program at NYSPI. Dr Pike has provided consultation on mental health policy to Japanese Parliamentary Representatives. Dr. Pike has conducted pioneering work in the area of women’s health with a particular focus on risk factors for eating disorders, and she developed a widely-disseminated treatment program for anorexia nervosa that has demonstrated effectiveness in multiple clinical studies.

Dr. Pike actively consults to programs around the world on the implementation of evidence-based treatment for eating disorders and has received awards for her clinical service and teaching. She recently served as consultant to the American Psychiatric Association DSM-5 task force on cultural factors associated with the clinical presentation and risk factors of eating disorders. She also serves on the Feeding and Eating Disorders Working Group for the World Health Organization revision of the International Classification of Diseases. Watch her TedX Tokyo Talk “Don’t Call Me Crazy”:

YVW: How did you forge your path?

I started out as an undergraduate interested in understanding different cultures. I was actually an international studies major as an undergrad. I thought that I would pursue a career that was explicitly focused on foreign service or international policy within the world of political governance, but the further I delved into this, the clearer it was that what really fascinated me was the people I met...and my desire to understand these stories led me to a desire to understand and rationalize the human condition. So I went on to study psychology because it allowed me to develop a theoretical framework for examining the human condition.

At this point in my career, I am able to bring these two passions together. I am now able to examine how people who struggle with illness are made vulnerable...because of the diseases that affect them and because of the relationship between the cultures of states and nations and how these crises are negotiated. So this is helping me to promote health, to eliminate prejudice and discrimination that individuals with various mental health conditions experience and to promote a broader embrace of the wide range of human experiences. Virtually all people will experience or be impacted by mental illness, either through personal experience or through proximity with someone who is suffering. We know that 1 in 4 people experiences a mental health challenge in a lifetime. Looking at the simple math of the family nucleus...within one arm’s length, we will come into proximity with someone who has had a mental health condition at some point.

And through my collaboration with the arts and artists, I have come to realize how poorly understood mental health really is. There are so many myths and misperceptions, and so in an effort to engage a broader segment of the population around these issues, I have increasingly expanded my commitment and interest in engaging the arts….the arts bring voice and expression to experiences that must be articulated.

YVW: Can you describe the ways in which you have seen communities react to these partnerships?

One project that I’d like to highlight is the Tōhoku project. It involved working with community members who were affected by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that devastated the region and displaced many people. There were enormous mental health repercussions. Many died, many were impacted, many lost love ones...the Tōhoku region, which was the area most significantly impacted is also a region that has relatively less exposure to concepts and models for mental health...and comparatively less discussion about the available methods for mental health support.

Those who studied the impact noticed significant increases in anxiety, depression, suicide...and they reached out to me in order to develop a program so that I could work with communities to raise awareness of the impact of the stress that they were experiencing and raise awareness of the services available.

So we worked with Bryan Doerries, Founder and Artistic Director of Outside the Wire. He has a methodology around theater and storytelling that immediately demonstrated the unique power of ancient Greek texts to create the paradoxical experience of emotional connection and distance. Emotional connection because the ancient Greek texts powerfully capture intense emotional and psychological truths of human experience. Distance because the stories are of mythical characters from long ago and faraway. This intimacy and distance are magical. They help to create a safe space in which people who are intimately touched can discuss the issues of mental health through the art form. This allowed people to gain access to the process of emotional experience, and it had significant impact in terms of reducing stress and providing people with opportunities to discuss their fears, emotional distress and anxiety...it created a platform for the discussion about mental health. We can highlight the artistic form, appreciate the art and also at the same time, eliminate the prejudice and discrimination that individuals with various mental illnesses experience by elevating the conversation regarding the mental health crisis.

We worked with another group in Amman. We hosted a program that welcomed Syrian women to share excerpts from their Syrian adaptation of The Trojan Women. And it was an incredibly powerful rendition. It toured many places. We also provided two different opportunities for them to perform and talk with communities of mental health providers and people in the audience. We conducted one such event in Jordan in 2014, and to this day, those who attended vividly remember the power of the play. Anyone who’d like to read more can go to the website.

“The inspirational cast of The Trojan Women received a standing ovation from a visibly moved Georgetown audience.”
http://www.syriatrojanwomen.org/news.html
“The inspirational cast of The Trojan Women received a standing ovation from a visibly moved Georgetown audience.”

YVW: It is such a beautiful project. You also work with a number of filmmakers. Can you discuss this a bit?

At this point now, we have hosted a number of filmmakers, including Lucy Winer and Sandra Luckow, who have and are telling their personal and family stories about mental illness through film. These filmmakers and others have shared poignant and personal experiences, and their work is very relatable. They offer this magical oeuvre into worlds that at first seem paradoxical. A thoughtfully and well-delivered personal story can be so powerful and transformative. A number of our global mental health university seminars have focused on this. And we are very excited to work with you as an artist-in-residence and as an artist who will help us craft a program for World Health Day, which for the first time ever is focused on a mental illness.

YVW: It is truly my honor.

April 7th, 2017 is World Health Day, and this year the focus is on depression, so beginning on that day for a year, the WHO and the UN, in terms of raising awareness globally, will be focused on discussing depression. We will all try to address the false dichotomy between mental health and physical health. This imagined dichotomy perpetuates the myth that mental health and mental illness aren’t real. There’s a physical reality to mental illness as much as there is with all health conditions…and that is why depression being the focus of World Health Day is so important and exciting.

YVW: What would you like the current administration to take into consideration regarding mental health?

I would like them to understand that we have a lot of different metrics for measuring a society and a country. Standard metrics do not only include GDP, imports, exports, new job creations and unemployment. There are so many metrics that we use as proxies for measuring the health or success of a society, and I would like to propose that one of the metrics we put forward as a measurement of health for our society is how well we’re taking care of the most vulnerable people of our society. When a society successfully grapples with the suffering of those who are vulnerable, everyone wins. And when society recognizes that the most vulnerable are as much worthy of attention and dignity as the powerful, then we will begin to have policies that protect everyone’s dignity. I think it would be transformative in the conversations that are being held today around civil rights and health, and I think it would be a watershed moment for me, if the US decided that it was going to measure an administration on the how well the most vulnerable faired.

YVW: The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben suggests that those who live in states of exception are ignored by power. What advice do you have for those who are frightened?

It is true that these are uncertain times. Many assumptions that people have made about daily life are under review and may be changing. I think there are two things: There are well-established strategies for reducing one’s individual stress from free-floating generalized anxiety. Many people talk about watching the news nonstop, and this is not productive. Watching the news increases and potentiates stress and anxiety...and in most cases, watching the news isn’t necessarily giving the viewer any new information. And then secondly, agency. It helps for people to ask themselves, “What can I do?” In the US, as much as people are concerned, the US has established institutions and established processes, and this is not the first time that the US has faced significant disruption of its social fabric. As a nation, and as individuals within the nation, people have forged on and there have been many leaders who have emerged from the most difficult times. Consider the great leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, women’s suffrage, and the Vietnam War for example. We must all thoughtfully reflect on the values we hold most dear and strategically engage in constructive work to advance those values.

*****

This Interview Series is a co-production of the forthcoming book on How Extraordinary Partnerships with the Arts and Humanities Are Transforming America.

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