Moving the Needle on Mental Health

4 organizations offer unexpected and active approaches to mental health therapy in Chicago

Sometimes a single experience can change everything, change your perspective and open your mind to possibilities. And many in Chicago are looking for such experiences.

From the pandemic to economic uncertainty, from climate change to societal unrest, many factors have fueled anxiety, depression and grief in recent years. In fact, anxiety and depression jumped 25% globally in the first year of the pandemicreported the World Health Organization in March.

Chicagoans were no exception. According to Chicago Health Atlas.

But not everyone here has access to conventional mental health treatments. Instead, local organizations are tackling mental health issues through non-traditional approaches, such as outdoor sports, improv, yoga, and theater, providing unique spaces to connect and heal.

And although mental health has taken a higher place in the national conversation in recent years, a societal reluctance to talk openly about mental health issues remains.

“Nobody says, ‘Hey, Tuesday over dinner, you want to talk about schizophrenia?’ Nobody is dedicating that time,” says Heather Bodie, executive artistic director of Erasing the Distance, a nonprofit theater company that documents mental health stories and shares them on stage. “That’s why we exist, to make time for conversation.”

Various treatment options have the potential to reach unexpected people in unexpected ways. These four Chicago organizations are moving mental health discussions beyond the therapy couch, tackling stigma and creating spaces for healing through non-traditional therapy approaches.

Urban nature therapy

Zorbari Nwidor was 17 when she first saw stars. She camped with Chicago Adventure Therapy in 2012.

“You don’t see stars in Chicago. You see planes and things, and I think that was a really life-changing time, to be out in nature, to look up into the sky and say, ‘Wow, I’ve lived this long, and I’ve never seen stars, she said.

The experience opened up the world of Nwidor. Two years later, she became an intern at Chicago Adventure Therapy. Today, she is part of the organization’s senior program staff.

Since 2007, Chicago Adventure Therapy has promoted mental health, social skills, and personal responsibility through outdoor activities such as paddling, camping, biking, and rock climbing.

The organization prioritizes diversity and inclusion, and most attendees are young people of color between the ages of 13 and 17 — a group traditionally underrepresented in outdoor activities. Chicago Adventure Therapy has worked with a range of young people – including people in need of mental health support, refugees, gang members and homeless youth. In 2021, the program served over 750 people.

Adventurers never have to pay. Funding for Chicago Adventure Therapy comes primarily from individual donations and from partner agencies and schools, which comprise the majority of the organization’s participants.

Laura Statesir, Director of Operations at Chicago Adventure Therapy, recalls a young Chicago resident with a family legacy of gang involvement whose perspective changed after taking a trip to Chicago Adventure Therapy. Now he is in college.

“Just going on this trip where everything we were doing was different – paddling, camping and seeing stars – he started to think that maybe there was something slightly different there than the results we did. he thought was predetermined for his life,” Statesir says. .

Mental health through documentary theater

Heather Bodie, executive artistic director of Erasing the Distance, joined ETD in 2013 as an actress and decided to stay long-term after her first show, where she heard from the family of a Vietnam War veteran finally understand his struggle with PTSD. (Yuliya Klochan/MEDILL)

clear distance performances create self-compassion as participants witness the stories of others and see their own stories reflected.

After performances, audiences often stay after to chat with the cast, further exploring the issues, says Executive Artistic Director Heather Bodie. Audience members share their own experiences and reactions, exploring difficult mental health topics such as grief and loss or men’s mental health.

“I’ll never forget [what] this person told me after a show,” Bodie says. The person confessed that they just wanted to listen, not talk about their own story. But after the performance, they said, “I’m going to go find a therapist.

Erase the Distance uses the power of storytelling to tackle difficult topics. Staff members conduct 60-90 minute interviews with people who volunteer to share their personal stories of mental health issues. Staff then shape the interviews into 10-minute monologues performed by professional actors.

“It was an exercise in freedom,” says Melanie Thompson, now a partner at Erasing the Distance, of her own storytelling experience. “To see someone show me so much compassion, even just to tell my story, it moved me. I felt so grateful to have shared and so grateful to the actor.

Bodie says many storytellers have told him that hearing their story increases their self-compassion. “Yes, there are tears, but there are also tons of laughter. There’s pain, but there’s also tons of joy, exploration, and discovery. It’s so cool to hear what someone else is going through and how they’re dealing with it,” she says.

To date, the Chicago-based nonprofit has collected more than 300 stories and performed at venues in the Chicago area and across the country.

Erase Distances public productions are free, but custom programs and workshops come at a cost. Staff are constantly collecting mental health reports and have released a podcast with the stories, available on Spotify.

Improv comedy as therapy

Angela Nino of the Improv Therapy Group sits at a table with a green notebook.
Angela Nino, CEO of Improv Therapy Group, co-founded the group in 2017 to help people practice therapy skills in a safe environment with games. (Yuliya Klochan/MEDILL)

Sometimes theater and therapy are not so far apart.

“When I was doing my own therapy and doing my own work on myself, I realized that my improv teacher and my therapist were telling me the same things,” says Angela Nino, founder and CEO of Improvisation therapy group.

Nino found it easier to explore emotions in the safe environment of improvisation. So she texted her teacher offering to start a comedy and improv therapy program. When his teacher responded with a thumbs up, Nino started Improv Therapy Group to use improvisation to help people deal with mental health issues in unexpected and dynamic ways.

The group works primarily with therapists, who then use improvisational games with their clients. Improv Therapy Group also offers sessions for clergy and corrections officers, and is developing a module for law enforcement. Participants come from the Chicago area and beyond, including some who joined New Zealand and the UK via Zoom.

Improv uses a “yes and” technique that is useful in other areas of life, Nino says. Saying “yes and” instead of “no” forces people to lean on another’s words and worlds – ultimately expanding their own.

Create stillness through yoga

A group of people in a Chicago field practice yoga to address mental health.
Since 2020, The Healing, a Chicago-based mental health discussion and yoga group, has provided space for black and brown men to process and release trauma. (Photo courtesy of The Healing)

The power and peace of yoga can promote healing. But for some populations, yoga isn’t always a go-to option.

In the summer of 2020, the United States was in turmoil with the pandemic and civil unrest. Andrew Smith and Tristan Lewis felt emotionally heavy, as did many black men they spoke to.

To help process the traumas of the year, Smith and Lewis hosted a 6 a.m. yoga session on a Sunday in June at a park in South Loop. Ten men answered yes; more than 20 showed up.

“I realized that a lot of guys had never set foot in a yoga studio before,” says Lewis, co-founder of The healing, a Chicago organization that uses yoga to boost the mental health of brown and black men. He adds that black men generally don’t frequent yoga studios because, due to the lack of representation in the space, many don’t feel completely comfortable.

“It was something that we benefited greatly from, from a mental standpoint,” Lewis says, of the first yoga session. “It was also comical because we were all trying to do these yoga poses, but we didn’t know what we were doing.”

The nonprofit temporarily moved its free monthly yoga sessions online due to the pandemic, but Lewis and her colleagues recently brought back in-person sessions.

“Yoga can help promote mental health healing, simply by getting all of us to stay still,” Lewis says. “The power of stillness is unmatched.” The Healing also runs community outreach sessions and has a dedicated group chat for members.

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