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Katherine Boydell: Hearing Voices

Using dance to communicate research on psychosis

From the beginning of her career as a mental health researcher, Dr. Katherine Boydell was always looking for new ways to broaden the reach of her research results. Results presented at conferences and published in Katherine Boydellscientific journals are often not easily accessible to the audiences that are the most affected by these research results.

Boydell and her colleagues saw the arts as an excellent way to share results and worked to present research findings through photography, documentary film and other mediums. When she started her work at SickKids, Boydell realized that it was becoming common for researchers to look for new ways to share results.

“People began realizing that the written word is not always the right way, or the best way, to engage different audiences,” said Boydell. “For me it was wonderful. It was a license to do what I was already doing and be able to get research money to support it.”

As a mother, Boydell spent much of her free time in dance studios while her three daughters danced competitively. It was while watching them that she became inspired.  

“I was just sitting there one day and it hit me. This is such a powerful medium for communicating emotion and telling a story,” said Boydell.

Boydell had just completed a CIHR funded study on first-episode psychosis in youth and their pathways to mental health care. She saw dance as a way of opening the doors for discussing, and eventually de-stigmatizing, mental health issues and psychosis specifically. It is critical to diagnose psychosis, a break from reality that can involve hearing voices or having hallucinations, at the onset. At least two in 100 adolescents in Canada experience psychosis, however, it often goes undetected and untreated.

Boydell approached Siona Jackson, a choreographer whose work she admired greatly for being creative and ‘out-of-the box’. Jackson was excited by the opportunity to use dance as an outlet for presenting research results and immediately came on board. The creative team became a part of the research team.

“The results of the study showed that people in the youths’ social networks were important players in the pathway to care, acting as a help or a hindrance to help-seeking,” said Boydell. “In the dance it was important to highlight the universality of the results but also to feature the particularity and uniqueness of each individual’s pathway. We had to balance the despair and anguish of psychosis with the hopefulness and the wonder of life that these young people have.”

Boydell and Jackson worked together for six months to produce the performance featuring six dancers, with an original musical score. The piece debuted at a symposium on first-episode psychosis for participants from Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia.

Since that first performance, and in subsequent performances at various conferences and at high schools, one of the main goals has been to tap into the audience’s response. Each performance starts off with an introduction and is followed by a question and answer period facilitated by Boydell and her team. Each member of the audience is also given a post-it note and they are invited to write what they thought about the performance. Since the first performance Boydell has collected thousands of post-its and is now working with an installation artist to come up with a way to present them.

“When I embarked on this journey I had no idea what kind of an impact it would have,” said Boydell. “Now I am seeing the huge potential it actually does have to enhance awareness of psychosis and raise awareness and reduce stigma around mental health in general.”

Funded by: Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR)