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UMass MIND partners with Worcester theater to support performances addressing mental health

‘Next to Normal’ portrays mother with bipolar disorder; UMass Chan group to provide resources for playgoers

UMass MIND is providing resources to
playgoers, including planned conversations
with the cast, crew and mental health
professionals following performances
on June 17, 19 and 25. 

Playgoers who attend the rock musical “Next to Normal” by Studio Theatre Worcester this month will receive accurate, understandable information and resources for those whose real lives, like those of the fictional characters in the play, may be affected by serious mental illness, thanks to UMass MIND.

UMass MIND, an integrated program of the Department of Psychiatry at UMass Chan Medical School, combines clinical services, community intervention and research focused on individuals with serious mental illness. “Next to Normal” is a Tony and Pulitzer prize-winning 2008 musical about a mother who struggles with bipolar disorder. The story addresses grief, depression, suicide, drug abuse and ethics in modern psychiatry. Six performances of the musical are taking place June 16 to 26 at Salem Covenant Church in Worcester.

“Arts and music can be a powerful approach for us to connect with our patients emotionally,” said Xiaoduo Fan, MD, professor of psychiatry and director of UMass MIND.

When Studio Theatre Worcester founder John Somers reached out to UMass Chan for assistance, members of the UMass MIND Community Intervention Program jumped at the opportunity. The program includes a team that focuses on arts and music as a holistic treatment approach for individuals who experience significant mental health challenges such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder.

“We thought it would be great to get involved to help provide mental health resources to the community and facilitate post-show discussions,” said Clara Cabot, second year T.H. Chan School of Medicine student and leader of arts and music outreach for UMass MIND. “It connects perfectly with our goals to increase mental health awareness, promote community engagement in conversations and decrease stigma surrounding mental illness.”

Medical students involved in UMass MIND curated information to add to the “Next to Normal” Playbill program. Also in coordination with UMass MIND, an on-site counselor will be present at the performances to offer support, if needed, for audience members and help facilitate post-show conversations. Planned conversations with the cast, crew and mental health professionals from the Worcester community will take place following the performances on June 17, 19 and 25.

“We read the script and songs for terms specific to mental health and compiled them into a vocabulary list. We edited definitions to make them easy to understand for lay audiences. We also included quotes from famous people including entertainment celebrities who have dealt with or are dealing with mental health conditions,” said second-year medical student Danielle Li. “We hope all this information can encourage audiences to engage even further with the play.”

The material is customized for the Worcester community, notably with a list of local resources for individuals and families dealing with serious mental illness.

“There's a lot of interest around mental health in general but addressing it with an entertainment event is where we can have an impact as an organization,” said Somers. “When we came up with the concept of doing ‘Next to Normal,’ we wanted to find a way to use theater to address a human need. The partnership with UMass MIND was a natural fit.”

“John had the vision of using the show as an opportunity to increase public awareness of mental illness and have a community impact,” said Dr. Fan. “We have been doing this type of initiatives for some years.”

In addition to UMass MIND, the production is sponsored by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Worcester Arts Council and the Greater Worcester Community Foundation. Tickets are available online and at the door.

Related stories on UMass Chan News:
UMass MIND awarded drama therapy grant by National Endowment of the Arts
UMass MIND hosting Orchestrating Change, music and health documentary, and panel discussion
One-act drama ‘Perseverance’ coming to UMass Medical School Oct. 19
Xiaoduo Fan appointed to PCORI advisory panel on health care delivery and disparities research
WGBH interviews Xiaoduo Fan about racial disparities in mental health care