Mental Health Blogs, Medical Education, and the Humanities: The Value of Public Scholarship and Interdisciplinary Training

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

On May 9th, Dr. Carrie Barron, Director of the Creativity for Resilience Program at the Dell Medical School and Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, led the final spring session of the Humanities Institute’s Faculty Fellows Seminar. Barron engaged the Faculty Fellows in a discussion of the therapeutic value of mental health blogs and the positive impact that studying the humanities may have on medical education and care.

Barron explained to the Faculty Fellows that in trying to decide upon her next intellectual project she realized that of all her previous projects, including several academic articles and her book, The Creativity Cure: How to Build Happiness with Your Own Two Hands, she felt that the 115 blogs she wrote for the popular website Psychology Today are her most valuable work. These blogs, some of which have attracted two to four hundred thousand readers, have allowed Barron to connect with and offer general therapeutic advice to the “layperson in simple language.” Barron noted that readers’ comments and messages have given her hundreds of pieces of evidence that blogs like “I Do Not Like Being A Mother: A Monologue about Parenting” and “If You Are the Target of Narcisisstic Abuse: Ways to think, words to say, and how to move on” have had a significant impact on the lives of people struggling with serious mental health issues. Barron regularly responds to readers’ comments and messages, and she sees these digital interactions as an important and meaningful way for her to use her professional knowledge and skills to support people unsure of how to navigate difficult or unhealthy relationships and thought patterns (she emphasized that this correspondence should be understood as support, not therapy). Barron expressed a desire to better understand the therapeutic impact that her blogs appear to have on readers and asked Faculty Fellows to weigh in on what the mental health blog genre offers readers.

Barron went on to discuss ideas for a possible book project that would explore how engagement with the humanities enhances the ability of medical caregivers to navigate uncertainty and ambiguity. According to Barron, medical students’ intense focus on STEM subjects reduces the flexibility of their thought. In some cases this causes medical caregivers to lean too heavily on providing a swift solution for patients in the form of a diagnosis when they might provide better care by focusing more on listening to patients and seeing ambiguous medical situations as opportunities to learn and respond creatively. Alongside coauthors Dr. David Ring and Dr. LuAnn Wilkerson, Barron suggests in her blog, “Humanities in Medical Education,” that writers like John Keats and F. Scott Fitzgerald have shown us the importance of “honing” our ability to be emotionally intelligent, intuitive, and creative—especially important for medical students and clinicians “when the anatomy is anomalous, when the facts don’t match the textbook,” or when patients’ stories are ambiguous.

Faculty Fellows responded to Barron’s discussion of her blogs by saying that they may work therapeutically because they provide a digital safe space for people experiencing difficult psychological situations to share their experiences and concerns. Fellows also observed that her blogs were valuable because they accomplish something other academic projects seldom do: they translate professional knowledge into a format that appeals to and benefits a broad public audience. Barron and other Fellows indicated that this kind public scholarship appears to be undervalued in academia, where peer-reviewed articles and monographs, publications that tend to have narrow target audiences, are valued significantly more than other kinds of scholarship.

In response to Barron’s ideas about the role of the humanities in medical education Fellows agreed that the humanities’ emphasis on forming connections between and understanding the complications of human lives could enhance caregivers’ comfort with ambiguity and attunement to others. Other Fellows noted that it is important that those interested in medical humanities distinguish between exposure to the arts, which would entail activities like reading poetry or painting, and studying the humanities, which would entail activities like critically analyzing a poem or painting. Fellows suggested that both are valuable and that practicing the critical methodologies used in the humanities would allow medical students to cultivate certain forms of attention that would enrich their interactions with art and other human beings.

See the Humanities Institute’s website for more information about the Faculty Fellows Seminar and the 2018-2020 class of Faculty Fellows.

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