How an Interdisciplinary Transmedia Project Can Address Mental Illness Stigma

Close up of model brain on mental health headlines
Close up of model brain on mental health headlines

Co-authored by Doris C. Rusch, PhD, Assistant Professor for Game Design, and Anuradha Rana, MFA, MA, Instructor in Digital Cinema at DePaul University

Interdisciplinary research is all the rage in higher education. Faculty members are encouraged to conduct research with interdisciplinary teams. These interdisciplinary teams and the research that comes from them are thought to solve societal problems more effectively than if the studies were conducted from one disciplinary focus or "silo."

These interdisciplinary teams may be more homogenous than different, such as interdisciplinary teams that are comprised of individuals who are from the social and behavioral sciences (e.g., sociology, psychology and social work) or team members who all come from the visual and performing arts (e.g., dance, music and film).

But what if the disciplines were as heterogeneous as science and art? Would science and the research that it produces translate more easily and quickly to practice and the real world? If it not only was found in our academic articles, but also was out in the world in art or other creative expressions? Could it make a greater difference to society?

The three of us sought to answer that question. In our case, one of us is a nurse and human/social scientist, one of us is a game designer, and the other, a filmmaker. None of us were new to interdisciplinary work -- we believe that good work can be done with persons from different disciplinary perspectives but we also believe in the importance of individual disciplines.

How does one go about an interdisciplinary project spanning art and science? How might this look?

The three of us began working together after we serendipitously met at the university where we all work. We discovered that we had overlapping interests from our seemingly disparate disciplines.

One of us (Shattell) was working on a study of the experience of psychosis and other unusual experiences and found out that the other (Rusch) had made games about mental illness in the past -- Elude, a game about depression, and Akrasia, a game about substance abuse. Both were interested in exploring how art and research could come together. Eager to tap the potentials of transmedia to provide more entry points for a wider audience and to create a more multi-faceted experience, Rusch brought in Rana, a documentary filmmaker and the three of us started our new adventure.

We were interested in stigma and discrimination against persons who are different. We chose mental illness and we set out to explore how mental health advocacy, video game design, and documentary filmmaking could come together to enhance understanding and fight stigma about mental illness.

How did we use games and film, and why? Games provide experiential perspectives that are inaccessible through other media. It is the complementary use of different media, however, that we believe bears the biggest potential to promote deep understandings in others. Each medium has its particular strengths that can be leveraged to create a coherent whole with different entry points. Thus, For the Records, which is our transmedia project that includes short films, interviews, photo essays and animation, all focus on communicating the experience of four different mental illnesses common in young adults -- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit disorder (ADD), eating disorder and bipolar disorder. All pieces have been developed in close collaboration or even under the lead of persons with these experiences -- young adults with OCD, ADD, eating disorder or bipolar disorder. Namely, college aged adults.

While the power of documentary to provide insight into other people's lives and increase our understanding about social issues has become widely known and accepted, the benefits of using games for similar purposes is still relatively new.

In For the Records, all pieces provide context to each other, allowing for an intuitive, artistic approach rather than an overly educational one. While they can be engaged in individually, it is in the way films, games, photo essays are intertwined that the multiple facets of mental health issues become tangible.

To be sure, we are not the only interdisciplinary team that blends art and science. There is the Art|Science Initiative at the University of Chicago, and the HuffPost Science Meets Art are just two initiatives and outlets for art and science. However, using research and first person experience and transmedia (games, documentary film) to decrease stigma is new and has the potential to have a positive impact.

Perhaps by expressing science through art, by interdisciplinary teams of artists and human/social scientists like ours, we can help people increase embodied understandings of mental illness, and the maybe decrease stigma. It's at least possible.