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Using the arts to understand our responses to mental health

André Comiran Tonon took a year’s leave from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, Brazil, to study the theatrical elements of talk therapy at UTSC.

As a student at a traditional medical school in Brazil, André Comiran Tonon was not afforded the opportunity to discover how the study of creative arts and humanities can improve patient care.

A full scholarship to take a Health Humanities course at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) through the Ciência sem fronteiras program changed that.

Tonon took a year’s leave from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre to study at UTSC where he researched and wrote a 50-page critical paper on the theatrical elements of talk therapy, a core principle of psychotherapy since the late 19th-century.

He also composed a dramatic monologue to illustrate his research findings and was asked to perform the work at the UTSC Undergraduate Humanities Conference in March 2015.

“I focus not on how therapies explain mental phenomena, but the way they chose to express it: that is, verbally expressed thoughts and feelings,” Tonon says of his research. “By using close readings of Sigmund Freud, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Howe and Gilles Deleuze, I try to answer a simple question: Is ‘talk’ sufficient to ‘work through’ (to use Freud’s enduring phrase) mental illness?”

Tonon’s research was supervised by Dr. Andrea Charise, assistant professor of Health Studies at UTSC. Her research and teaching focuses on health humanities, an emerging interdisciplinary field that turns to the creative arts and humanities as a way of investigating experiences of health and illness.

Tonon’s paper received an honorable mention for the 2015 Mary Seeman Award for Achievement in the Area of Psychiatry and the Humanities, and he has now submitted his work to a peer-reviewed scholarly journal.

Charise says Tonon’s honourable mention is a remarkable accomplishment, given that he was competing against medical students and residents at the University of Toronto.

“André's work is an excellent example of what we gain when we allow the insights of the arts to enhance our understanding of the experience of mental health and illness,” she adds. “I have no doubt that this is only the first of André's many successes as a physician — and artist — in training.”

Tonon says he was shocked by the award, especially since he comes from a developing country and didn’t expect to be rewarded in a country as respected as Canada.

Now back in Brazil to complete his final two years of medical training, he says the award validated the way he thinks about healthcare and his future in the profession.

“It certainly contributed to strengthen my toolbox of coping strategies to survive the hegemonic bio-medical world I am in, and settled the ground of my future as a medical scholar.”


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