May 22, 2019 | 66° F

Graduate student from Rutgers shows how improv can help people overcome depression, anxiety

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Mark Lee, a graduate student in the Rutgers School of Public Health, teaches improvisational acting to help individuals step out of their comfort zones and cope with mental illnesses.

A graduate student at Rutgers has set out to show how improvisational acting can help increase confidence and communication skills in individuals with mental health illnesses.

Rutgers School of Public Health graduate student Mark Lee uses improv to teach individuals how to express themselves and overcome their insecurities.

He said he first gained interest in helping individuals with mental illnesses from personal experiences.

“Just in my personal life, a lot of my friends and family have mental illnesses, whether it's anxiety or depression, and I can see just how difficult it is for people to live with that and a lot of the times they have trouble just reaching out for help just because of the stigma that’s associated with mental illnesses,” he said.

Lee said that he feels lucky to have found a way to combine something he loves with a message that he connects with personally. 

He said that his interest in theater started aimlessly, but he has learned how to use his passion to help individuals combat the stigma that surrounds mental illnesses.

"Improv in general teaches you the skills that more or less apply to any situation you have with interacting with other people,” Lee said. “So for me, I think improv helps a lot with daily interaction with people, but more specifically in relation to mental illness I think it helps us understand just what another person is speaking even if their literal words may not necessarily translate into that."

Lee said that improv helps individuals learn to read the message behind what people are saying. This is a huge factor that helps combat mental illness like anxiety and depression.

He implemented his improv techniques during an internship this past summer at the Bridgeway Rehabilitation Services partial-care psychiatric rehabilitation program. The internship program was administered by the School of Public Health.

“In the internship that I did, some of the clients were a little bit reluctant to try improv, which is totally understandable just because I get that improv isn’t for everyone and it definitely takes people out of their comfort zones, which in a sense is also something that helps reduce the stigma of mental illness, is to have people get out of their comfort zones,” Lee said.

Allowing clients to let the improv help them organically is recommended, he said. It will likely not be helpful if it is forced.

“There was one client that was very, very reluctant to start in the beginning, and just watching his growth over the time of the class was very rewarding to me," Lee said. "To me, what that experience has taught me was to not force my will or force my goals on anyone else."

The reaction Lee has received from the Rutgers community has been very positive and extremely rewarding, he said. 

Lee said that he is overwhelmed and flattered at the positive reaction the Rutgers community has had about his work. 

"I’ve had both students and faculty members either emailing me or approaching me in person just saying that I’m doing great work, and to me, that means a lot because I think just for me personally I always sort of forget that some of the work I do will have an impact on people," he said. "So I think the reaction to the article was definitely a reminder that it is definitely a privilege to have this effect on people.”

Kayon Amos is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in human resources. She is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum.

Kayon Amos

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