“Mental health” has become a topic of frequent conversation on college campuses.

Universities across the United States are grappling with ways to create a positive atmosphere for their students, but what does it mean to nurture mental health in education? Is it through medical services alone? And what do we know about mental healthcare today?

Wendy Kline (pictured above), Dema G. Seelye Chair in the History of Medicine, wanted to answer some of these questions. Reducing the stigma around mental health can be difficult, but Kline found using a historical perspective to be effective.

In her history of medicine courses, she teaches her students about the considerable advances in the field of psychiatry.

“Mental health is crucial to students in terms of their well-being and their surrounding community,” Kline said. “Teaching the history of psychiatry gets them excited about the history of mental health. It enables students to develop an appreciation for the origins of the contemporary issues around the stigma of mental health.”

Kline decided to invite to Purdue one of the authors she frequently assigns for her classes: Christine Montross, a physician, writer, and professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University.

On Feb. 12, Montross gave a talk – sponsored by the Medical Humanities program in the College of Liberal Arts – as part of the sesquicentennial campaign’s Ideas Festival. In her talk, Montross took a deeper look at the field of psychiatry and connected her own passion for the creative arts with the struggles her patients faced and the larger system of healthcare and medicine.

To open the talk, Don Platt and Sharon Solwitz, professors of English, read from their own writings about mental illness. Platt, who read his poem Tornadoesque about his daughter’s bipolar diagnosis, said that mental illness has the most profound effect on the person experiencing the condition, but that the family and community surrounding them need an outlet to understand and cope, too.

“What this poem wants to do is destigmatize mental illness,” Platt said. “The fact of mental illness is that it’s very strange for most of us, and it’s strange for me, too. The thing is that when one talks about it, witnesses it, it becomes less other, less strange, less threatening.”

Solwitz also spoke of how writing about mental health in a fiction context helped her embody someone with mental illness, understand their intricacies, and feel a deep empathy toward them. She read a passage from her book Once in Lourdes about a group of teens that create a suicide pact.

“To make a character come alive you have to look really hard at what motivates them,” Solwitz said. “And the process of doing that authentically takes you out of your small self and brings you into their world, which to me is a definition of mental health – one’s ability to connect with other people and see the world in a larger way.”

William Caise, assistant director at the Black Cultural Center, and his mentor Richard Stockton Rand, professor of theatre, came together to perform a two-man play, The Sunset Limited, that focused on conversations about mental illness. In this play, one man is in psychological crisis, while the other comforts him with reasons to keep living and ways to find strength.

“Suicide, being a somewhat taboo subject, is an issue we’re loathe to address or confront directly,” Rand said. “This play was a chance to speak to people who might be in crisis in a way that’s not confrontational.”

Caise, who has used theatre and acting in his own work at the Black Cultural Center and with high school students he mentors, says there came a point in his life when he looked back and realized how many friends he had lost. He tried to find the difference between why he made it when others did not.

He decided it was his commitment to the arts as a way to express himself and to make himself vulnerable to others.

“I’m a firm believer that art is transformative,” Caise said. “So much of the work I’m doing is to help people find their voice. I find that students who are challenged or on the edge – concerning personal issues – will often calm down when they find a way to outwardly address and express the turmoil that’s inside them, generally speaking. I don’t think of art as a panacea, but as an additional tool to us as we look for ways to address the challenging issues confronting us.”

Kline sought this type of expression when she first came to Purdue. She saw an opportunity to marry Purdue’s STEM fields and sprawling College of Liberal Arts with the creation of the Medical Humanities program.

“For STEM students, it brings meaning to what they study,” Kline said.

For faculty and staff, Rand said, reducing the stigma of mental illness brings a better sense of purpose, a sense that they can help students through difficult times with confidence.

“What I do as a teacher is about being someone who can be present with students in crisis without an agenda, who isn’t afraid or conflicted,” he said.

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