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CCFA’s Arts and Health Initiative aims to redefine wellness in the creative community

A growing interest in arts and health initiatives within the higher education sector, both nationally and internationally, combined with the ongoing pursuit of high-profile research has led to the creation of The University of Memphis Arts and Health Initiative.

The program, which was launched in spring of 2018 by Dr. Anne Hogan, Dean of the College of Communication and Fine Arts at The University of Memphis, aims to facilitate opportunities for faculty, staff and graduate students to share best practices, as well as explore opportunities to develop and secure funding for interdisciplinary research projects broadly related to the arts and health.

“I’ve always been interested in the way that artists can work together with people from STEM subjects, the humanities and social sciences on collaborative work,” Hogan said. “The challenge, however, is bringing everybody together to present those opportunities.”

Arts and Health Initiative meetings are held twice a semester in various venues across The University of Memphis campus, and all are welcome to attend for an opportunity to explore ways to work together with different campus representatives to have an impact on the wider community.

“The Arts and Health Initiative is probably the biggest research undertaking that we’re working on at the moment,” said Kevin Sanders, Dean’s Fellow for Research Development with the College of Communication and Fine Arts. “I think Dean Hogan saw a space for this, both on campus and in the community, when she came onboard. Memphis has a tremendous medical community, as well as a very active arts scene. It’s two things the city has become known for and combining them made sense.”

Hogan cited the Royal Academy of Dance in London’s Dance for Lifelong Wellbeing (DfLW) project as early inspiration for the initiative, which is both a research and community outreach project.

“We basically trained teachers to safely work with older adults through dance and study its effect on general health and wellbeing,” Hogan said.

The University of Memphis Arts and Health Initiative is led by a trio of sub-committees, with each focused on different aspects of arts and health. These sub-committees include Arts Initiatives for Health in the Community, chaired by Susan Elswick from the School of Social Work; Health, Wellbeing and the Built Environment, chaired by Jenna Thompson of the Department of Architecture; and Health Initiatives for Artists, chaired by Miriam van Mersbergen from the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

Arts Initiatives for Health in the Community

The Arts Initiatives for Health in the Community subcommittee aims to promote engaging scholarship by seeking out opportunities to improve health and wellbeing for the community through collaborative efforts alongside artists. This subcommittee is primarily dedicated to research centered around creative arts therapy and the study of how things like music, puppetry and theater can aid in expression.

“A lot of hospitals are really working to incorporate art-based interventions such as clay, music, and dance or movement therapy,” Elswick said. “Similarly, we’re seeing many of these same things embedded in mental health practices. Nationally, doctors understand the significant cognitive benefit these activities have for clients. But locally, we don’t have too many opportunities to educate people on this topic.”

A significant component of the Arts and Health Initiative involves the development of an expressive art graduate certificate to help local clinicians and mental health professionals who are interested in incorporating arts therapy in their practices. The Arts Initiatives for Health in the Community subcommittee employs a multidisciplinary approach, encompassing a wide range of departments that includes representatives from the fields of psychology, social work, anthropology, and nursing, as well as partners in the arts such as the Memphis Music Initiative. For Elswick, the slew of networking opportunities offered by the Arts and Health Initiative have shown to be among the most significant boons of the program early on.

“The beautiful thing is that most of the individuals involved were already embracing the concept of merging arts and behavioral sciences in practice, we just didn’t know each other,” Elswick said. “This committee is dedicated to connecting and bridging that gap that we often find ourselves facing in higher education since many people tend to work in silos.”

As chair of the Arts Initiatives for Health in the Community subcommittee, Elswick works to develop and innovate new programs alongside existing community partners like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which currently employs a musical therapy program to enhance the outcomes for patients undergoing cancer treatment.

“It’s not that we don’t already have this happening around our University, we just haven’t quite had that opportunity to network and communicate with likeminded individuals about the research that is already happening,” said Elswick, who became interested in studying the intersection of arts and health after observing countless local musicians who were struggling with ways to address mental health issues like depression, anxiety and unresolved trauma in the music community, with many of these negative psychological impairments often finding their way into the artists’ work.

“We’ve come to find that art and music teachers aren’t always well equipped for navigating the world of mental health,” Elswick said.

Elswick works to provide additional mental health-related training to instructors in conjunction with Gregory Washington, Full Professor with the School of Social Work and Coordinator of the Hooks African-American Male Initiative/Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, and the Director of Center for the Advancement of Youth Development (CAYD). Together, Washington and Elswick worked to identify and support specific needs in the Mid-South community.

“We feel like the best collaboration comes through engaged scholarship in the local community,” said Elswick. “One of our goals this year is to host an interdisciplinary conference that will incorporate all three subcommittees in some form and highlight work that faculty members and community partners are doing so we can show all the great work that’s being done.”

Elswick, with the leadership of Dr. Washington, formed a music club curriculum template based around African drumming for students and adolescents in the region who have experienced trauma.

“The nature of art is very therapeutic and, in practice, has shown to be a very effective intervention for individuals when it comes to mental health,” said Elswick.

Health, Wellbeing and the Built Environment

The Health, Wellbeing and the Built Environment subcommittee, which is spearheaded by Jenna Thompson with the Department of Architecture, looks at ways that an environment or space can be improved to affect overall health or increase the wellbeing of an individual.

“Many, many factors play into the idea of health in the built environment,” Thompson said. “From the location in general to the surrounding communities, we must account for things like pedestrian friendliness and walkable conditions in an area. Is the building where an individual lives or works inviting and open to the community? Does it feel like an inclusive space? These are the questions we’re asking.”

These subtle changes can be as small as adjusting the lighting of a room or the color of paint on the wall, both of which have been shown to increase the psychological and physical health of individuals in certain living spaces and public areas.

“Everything we do in design is connected,” Thompson said. “Architecture is a holistic system that impacts the health of humans and the environment, so these two things really can’t be separated from one another.”

In addition to accessible areas that encourage active lifestyles, Thompson said the one of the most significant environmental factors that negatively affect individuals relates to how we source our energy, namely with fossil fuels.

“As a result, we need to look at air quality and the way we’re contaminating our local water sources,” Thompson said. “But at the end of the day, there’s no one underlying thing. It’s a very complex system with many elements working together.”

Thompson has worked alongside several local personalities to build momentum for the Health, Wellbeing and the Built Environment subcommittee, including Miriam Levy, Associate Dean and Professor with the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences; Andy Kitsinger former director of planning and development for the Memphis Center City Commission; and Michael Chisamore, Director of Interior Architecture and Director of the Center for Sustainable Design.

“We’ve been working to form a group with the intent to grow research and funding,” Thompson said. “Architecture isn’t typically a grant-heavy department, so any studies of the built environment have been historically difficult to get funding for. One of the biggest issues we’re currently dealing with is how to push forward as a subcommittee with our limited resources.”

Thompson’s subcommittee focuses on research interests geared toward social and environmental sustainability in relation to the built environment, including prototype projects like tiny homes for veterans or homeless individuals.

“We’re taken up a very holistic process of thinking when it comes to the Arts and Health Initiative,” Thompson said.

Thompson said she hopes to work in collaboration with Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris’ “Healthy Shelby Initiative” program to form a citywide plan of action to address the issue of wellness in the built environment.

“We need people to participate, especially in terms of an added health component,” Thompson said. “The city and the county tend to promote and embrace design that encourages healthy living. The wheel is moving slowly, but I believe that once it begins turning, we’ll see a great thing.”

Health Initiatives for Artists

The Health Initiatives for Artists subcommittee, chaired by Miriam van Mersbergen from the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, aims to instill healthy habits in artists through education on proper physical and mental practices with a focus on potential collaborations between health professionals and artists.

“Artists get a bad rap,” van Mersbergen said. “They tend to be viewed as ancillary to normal daily life and commerce, and told in subtle ways that what they do isn’t as important compared to other disciplines. But imagine going through life with nothing beautiful to look at or hear? It would look an awful lot like a mid-century Soviet Union movie. Very gray.”

With a background that includes work as an assistant professor with the School of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, as well as a secondary career as a vocalist, the position of chair for the Health Initiatives for Artists subcommittee makes sense for van Mersbergen, whose personal background offers an additional layer of understanding when it comes to working alongside artists.

“We demand a lot of our artists,” van Mersbergen said. “We ask for continuous high-level activity, sometimes for peanuts in terms of payment. Oftentimes, there is a lot of effort for very little reward.”

As a former performer who now works as a voice clinician, van Mersbergen understands many of the idiosyncrasies of the music community. For example, many singers tend to feel more comfortable getting their voice measures coming directly from a piano instead of digitized tones. By addressing unique capabilities of the artist as an individual, van Mersbergen hopes to seek potential collaborations between healthcare professionals and artists in the Mid-South with an overarching goal of establishing a specialized regimen of care required for artists.

“Someone could come to an ENT physician with a hoarse voice, but a singer might have problems that arise much earlier in the disease process and seek services earlier, before they are obviously hoarse,” said van Mersbergen. “Or, take the violinist who is having problems with dexterity in their fingers. They might go see a physical therapist who approaches care by trying to balance their upper body because that therapist might notice one side of the body tends to be asymmetrical. This is typical because of the body position in which the violin is played.”

In addition, van Mersbergen hopes to bring more accessible health services to the arts community, chiefly in the area of mental health, which she presents as yet another tool in the artists’ arsenal for health and wellness.

“We’re finally working to address the mental health aspect of the arts here at the college level, where we find ourselves training people to be artists,” van Mersbergen said. “In future training, we hope to train them to also carry around the tools they need to maintain a healthy mental state.”

With an emphasis on mental health, in addition to physical health, van Mersbergen’s area of study focuses on instilling an artist’s understanding of their own body and abilities to prevent overexertion, which could lead to burnout. Much of this study, according to van Mersbergen, centers around observing the physical and mental cost of certain activities and learning how to properly compensate for those expenditures. However, there are other, more subtle solutions that require informed training as a care provider.

“At face value, some of the solutions can be fairly obvious: don’t be in the vocal room for three hours, don’t dance for 10 hours a day, things like that,” van Mersbergen said. “The stress on vocal folds can certainly reach a limit over a period of time. The classic countermeasures that everyone knows about are drinking more water and avoiding smoking. Those were very novel ideas when I first started, but now I think they’re in the collective consciousness of all singers.”

To achieve this, van Mersbergen and her subcommittee have worked alongside individuals like UofM vocal instructor Kyle Ferrill to develop meditation courses and instill behaviors that allow the artist to get back in touch with who they are as a whole individual. For some, this requires frequent use of checking in with counselors or coaches, as well as establishing boundaries of what can and can’t be done with an individual’s toolset.

“We’re talking about something as benign as mild depression to something as severe as suicidal thoughts,” van Mersbergen said. “We all approach our sense of identity differently, and some have a very strong sense of identity tied to artistic expression.”

The price artists pay when they lose their ability to express their art requires a delicate relationship with care providers.  Much of the research done by van Mersbergen’s subcommittee aims to reinforce the notion of the body as an instrument. Vocal athletes are encouraged to utilize warm-up and cooldowns exercises and a well thought out training regimen backed by an understanding of work time versus an expected rest period.

“For musicians, dancers, designers and actors, that is who they are, it’s how they express their humanity,” van Mersbergen said. “When those expressive components are impaired, we risk losing a little bit of ourselves or worse.”

According to van Mersbergen, a bevy of studies have been conducted to explore the psychosocial impairment of an individual who must give up their outlet for creative expression, most of which suggest the need for an understanding of the physical requirements and motivations behind creative work, as well as the consequences of suddenly being rendered unable to perform as expected. This holds true for any artistic endeavor.

“Singers and musicians often demand much more of their voices, but they’re also much more aware when things aren’t working as they should,” van Mersbergen said. “A familiarity with what these common actions are, as well as what’s riding on the importance of these actions, adds a whole other dimension to care.”


For more information of the Arts and Health Initiative and the upcoming Arts and Health Symposium event on April 3, click here

Published inCollege of Communication and Fine ArtsNew DevelopmentsUniversity of Memphis

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