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On using therapy in teaching and dance for mental health projects

Tell me about yourself and your background.

I’m an artist, an academic, a facilitator, and movement practitioner. I’m a Senior Lecturer in Dance and Performance at the University of Bedfordshire and I teach across performing arts, dance and acting courses, delivering choreography, technique sessions, devising work and facilitating projects.

How did you start getting interested in mental health in relation to dance?

When I lived back in Spain, I was supposed to study psychology at university, so when I finished my equivalent of A Levels, what I always wanted to do was study psychology. But I realised at the time that I didn't feel somehow mature enough to get deep into the subject and I felt like I needed to grow up more to understand it better, so I moved to England to learn more English, and when I got here I realised that actually dance is a degree subject here, so then I went into the performing arts and dance world and left psychology for a while. But the mind and the mind-body connection is something I’ve always been interested in, and I’ve had struggles with my own mental health, and so I was thinking how I could help myself, how I could help myself to be easier to be around other people, because sometimes I felt that my connection with others was difficult due to the lack of understanding myself or noticing that maybe I could understand others – so psychology was always a massive thing.

And as I started to dance I realised how easy it was for me to understand myself through movement, and especially as I got more into theatre and performance in general, how much more my mental health improved, so it felt that everything I did performance-wise was cathartic. So it would open up gates where things would get a little bit harder at first, then it felt like the processing of those difficult things then opened up more and more healing for me just because I got to know myself more and more. So I find the arts are definitely healing. At first I couldn’t put it into words and it was just an experience. The older I got, the more I started to work with students, I realised that students would go through those healing processes that I experienced, so then I got more and more interested and thinking, what we’re doing here is not just creative, it’s having an impact on how we felt emotionally as well as physically. Working at a university with a widening access remit, we often work with students with very challenging backgrounds, so I’ve always intuitively used this approach but more and more obviously since I’ve been exposed to therapy training.

So you did some training in psychology and mental health?

Yes – when working with the students, at first I was doing it without any grounding, just intuitively thinking OK this is what’s helping so doing workshops around getting to know ourselves and how we relate to one another, and I could see how it benefited the students. So then I realised actually I needed to have some grounding on it to really support them in a safe way, so I did some CPD training called internal family systems (IFS). It’s a therapy training based on how to heal trauma, created by Richard Schwartz who is an American psychologist and family therapist. There are 3 levels, so far I’ve done the first two levels, and I started applying it to my teaching and it really works. In a nutshell, it allows you to understand your internal system as a system of parts that helps us get on with life and helps us protect ourselves from wounded parts that have experienced micro and macro trauma throughout our lives.

So I realised the students come to us with so many micro and macro traumas but then they’re having to manage themselves in a classroom, so it’s given me strategies and new ways to understand how to keep them safe in order for them to access their creativity, so that they can then make the most of their degrees, by understanding themselves and keeping themselves safe, and little by little maybe using some of the wounds as creative outlets somehow. The training helped me guide students, and although I’m still learning and trying to understand how this therapy helps students as part of my PhD, I’ve noticed they’re coming for more tutorials with me, not just for my classes but about some of the other aspects of the course, so it’s definitely helping them.

Can you give an example of how you use internal family systems in an everyday classroom or studio environment?

In all my sessions, we start with a check-in, so we allow ourselves to put different parts of ourselves into the room – and it’s not forced, we share what we want to share – but it’s a way of making ourselves aware of where we’re at. In IFS language we say, what parts are present with us today? So maybe today I feel very stressed and very blocked, or very tired, or I feel like I don’t want to be here, so all these different parts show up in the room, and me as a facilitator asks, “is it OK for us to be feeling tired and angry and blocked and not wanting to be here?” So the permission that we give is that those parts can be with us in the room. Once we allow those parts to be there, somehow, magically, after I’ve gone through every student, we’ve created a little bit of space, and then suddenly those parts relax, and then they’re not taking over completely, and then some creative parts can show up, so we somehow we create space for more space! Just by allowing these parts to have a voice, they’re allowing themselves to be tired and angry and not wanting to be there, they actually allow themselves to be there.

I’ve noticed how it does create space, so students come in and they know they can be upset and still be in the room, it allows them to be who they are without having to change themselves. A really powerful example is a piece I’ve just made on the third year students who had a really severe loss, they lost one of their peers to cancer and so there were a lot of students not wanting to be there because it was too painful. Through the process, the ones that were the most wounded seemed to benefit from it the most – for example one student who was closest to the student we lost, she actually got the highest mark in the assessment. She went deep into the process, and processed the grief, the anger, the sadness, cried when she needed to without leaving the space because it was safe enough to cry without having to leave the room – and the outcome was incredible, she was so present, so engaging, and didn’t miss any sessions, whereas the year before, her attendance was 50%. If I was to collect some data, I would look at students’ attendance, their engagement – all of these things have improved by using the therapy resources and skills.

It’s such a different approach to that traditional idea where you have to ‘leave your feelings at the studio door’.

Absolutely. You know, I might have someone who sits on the side or is 30 minutes late and I’ll still allow them to come in the room – all of that stuff, I’ve got to be willing to take the risk of what it does to the room, like some people who are late and still managing the people who are on time and managing that disruption. But it’s creating the space for everyone to be who they are, in their own timing, with their own rhythm, and it is chaotic, it’s more of a mess, but in that chaos we create some kind of order – it does work.

Have you used this kind of approach in the projects that you’ve been part of? What is it like to work on projects with a specific aim to have a positive impact on mental health?

For the Mind Me project we worked with people who were unemployed, with an aim to try to get the participants integrated back into the community and to find work. We had 5 participants and 4 students who were suffering with some form of mental health issue – some had very low self-esteem, some were recovering addicts. I worked with a psychologist and one of the Mind practitioners as well. I used some of what I’d already learned from IFS, but obviously I had a psychologist involved who was also overseeing the whole process, so I felt safer knowing she was qualified and could hold the space in that way, but she was supporting me to play with what I knew and my own intuition. And actually, three of them got a job afterwards, so it did work. But it was challenging – for example, one participant was really unwell at the time, so every 5 minutes he would have to leave the room, some of the others couldn’t commit to coming every week, so the challenges were there, so again, the only way for it to work was allowing them to be who they were – allowing them to be late, allowing them to not turn up – and when they did turn up, to make the most of it.

With the Hear and Now project, one of the groups was suffering from dementia, so in the same way we couldn’t set any material, the material had to be done as a way of connecting to yourself in the session, but when it came to trying to make the performance piece, everything had to be guided in a way that was kind of done in the moment with some students that were guiding the experience by knowing what the work was and then leading the participants so they were present, but nothing could be set.

So to me, working with these groups, it’s reassured me that using IFS can work so then I can bring it to the students and use it in the same way. We can make work that also has an impact on people’s health because they don’t have to be any other than what they are – to me that’s what wellbeing and mental health is, it’s being who you are without any pressure to be something other. Where people feel unwell is that sense of, “I’m not good enough just as I am, I should be this, I should be that,” and I think that really makes them feel unwell.

Are there any other challenges with this kind of work?

The other challenge is for me to have enough confidence to think that I’m good enough to do it. So am I good enough to make this happen, and it’s funny because that’s exactly what I want to get the people that I work with to feel, that you’re enough to do anything, your presence is enough, what you’re saying, who you are is enough without having to do anything, so it’s me working through that so that I can put it into place. And then getting some funding to continue it!

Did you experience any benefits yourself from doing these projects?

Yes, because I think, even just doing the interview with you right now, I think as I’m talking, in the past I’ve had some insecurity in that I should be more articulate in how I talk about what I do, but I’m not, and that’s ok. Whereas in the past I’d be saying, “oh no, I can’t explain it!” But if I could explain it, I don’t know if I’d be able to do it in the artistic way that I do it, and I can speak through it in metaphor when my work comes together, that’s my articulation of what I’m trying to say. Also, somehow I’m able to teach the students by setting the workshops, by setting the tasks and the experiences in the room, and they learn from that process, but I’m still not able to articulate it in an academic way.

But the benefits for me is that I am here, still doing it, and exposing the students to my practice, and so my confidence is growing in that I can do that, so my wellbeing is improved by me allowing myself to do it, and being here, and keeping up, as opposed to thinking, “I’m not good enough therefore I’m not going to do it.” So I think my self-esteem and self-confidence improves by me being who I am and not trying to be something other.

Would you like to continue working on these sorts of projects? Is there a particular population group you would like to work with?

I would really like to do more work with non-artists, so I want to work with people who don’t engage in dance currently. It came from seeing my doctor who told me that she would love to dance, and I thought well, why can’t she? I want to make a piece with non-actors, non-dancers, even though I think everybody is a dancer, everybody is an actor, but I want to bring to them the value of creativity, using the poetry of metaphor in the aesthetics of performing. I just want to bring it to the community really. For example, when you come through the door and you see the house is a mess and you just want to say, “I can’t live like this! My kids make so much mess!” – well, that is a theatre set, and how you engage with the poetry of that, that is what I want to show on stage. To see everyday life as a performance piece.

Photo credit: Rachel Cherry

If you regularly work with students, you might find this blog about supporting individuals in crisis useful.

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