Hiram College

Written by Jory Gomes ’18

On Thursday February 22nd, Hiram College’s Center of Literature and Medicine hosted Michael Rowe, Ph.D., for a talk on “Citizenship and Mental Health.” Dr. Rowe is a Professor of Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine,Co-Director of the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health, and Chair of the International Recovery Citizenship Council. He centers his work around the use of citizenship as a model for improving mental health—both on a community and individual level. In his discussion at Hiram, he aimed to explain this concept and provide reasons as to why citizenship as a form of social inclusion, should no longer be an overlooked aspect of mental health. To understand the intricacies of his talk, the rest of this article outlines different faculty members’ perspectives on his lecture.

Matthew Sorrick, Director of Hiram’s Center for Science Education and Director of the Northwoods Field Station made the comment that the size of the challenges faced by social workers and mental illness professionals took him by surprise. He commented that students, whether they were at the talk or not, should have an understanding of “how difficult it is to connect with the mentally ill, and the size of the bridge that needs to be constructed to get them integrated into society.” He further noted Dr. Rowe’s comments on the difficulty of teaching disenfranchised peoples citizenship—when a large portion of them haven’t been treated as citizens, or haven’t had the opportunity to engage in citizenship yet.

Erin Lamb, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Chair of Biomedical Humanities, built upon Sorrick’s comments by adding that students, and all members of the Hiram community, really need to understand how different it is that Dr. Rowe’s work focuses “not just on ‘providing help,’ but on integrating them into their communities through coursework-based interventions centering on citizenship.” In conversation, Dr. Lamb underscored the novelty of Dr. Rowe’s work on using “valued role projects” in treating homeless and mentally ill people. She stated that Dr. Rowe having “students meeting with police cadets to teach them about the experience of having a mental illness and being approached by a police officer on the street” is so different, yet effective, that it opens up the opportunities for citizenship work.

Adding to Dr. Lamb’s comments, Michelle Nario-Redmond, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology stated that “mental illness treatments that fail to afford people with opportunities to play meaningful roles as contributing citizens may be missing some of the most important mechanisms by which people derive a sense of value and self-worth.” Dr. Nario-Redmond furthered her comment by explaining that “there’s a unifying theory in psychology called, ‘Terror Management Theory,’ that argues that self-esteem derives from opportunities to plug into society and contribute in meaningful ways.” Dr. Nario-Redmond wants students, especially those whose future work will intersect with mentally ill individuals, to understand that contribution to society are a major way in which people improve their mental health. She stated that “without those opportunities, people are at risk of depression and other existential crises because their lives appear to have no meaning/purpose. In other words, when some people are not afforded the same chances of doing things that the culture says are important (like going to school, working, getting married etc.), they become more vulnerable to marginalization and mental illnesses, particularly those who are dispositionally vulnerable to begin with.”

Finally, Brad Goodner, Ph.D., Professor of Biology said “the big message I got from Dr. Rowe’s talk was that solving an immediate public health need, say providing affordable housing for a homeless person, may not solve the need over the long term if that person does not feel connected to a larger community.” He further commented that this more humanistic approach to mental health outreach is different, but makes complete sense given the fairly universal desire to belong. He said that he wants people to not only understand this main point of Dr. Rowe’s talk, but the way Dr. Rowe talked about his career’s evolution as well. Dr. Goodner explained this point by saying that Dr. Rowe’s career, like most people’s, “changed in ways he could not have originally predicted.” Dr. Goodner wants students to understand the value of thinking out-of-the-box and forging new pathways for themselves: “we all have plans and aspirations, but as we learn more about the world and more importantly about ourselves, our paths take new turns that lead into new challenges and opportunities.” He later added that Dr. Rowe’s career exemplified the idea that “the fulfilled life is one where you gain energy and passion from those challenges and opportunities.”