Being UnLonely through Creative Expression

March 26, 2018

A conversation with Joseph Behen, Executive Director, Counseling, Health, and Disability Services at the School of Art Institute of Chicago and Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH, President of the Foundation for Art & Healing


Joseph Behen: Jeremy, it’s wonderful to have you here at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Thank you for coming. Tell us about yourself!

Jeremy Nobel: Thanks, Joe. First, it’s a pleasure to be here. My name is Jeremy Nobel and I’m a medical doctor by training, also a public health practitioner, and also the founder of The Foundation for Art & Healing.

What is the Foundation for Art & Healing?

The Foundation for Art & Healing is a 501-c3 non-profit. We’ve been around 15 years and we’ve got a mission. Our mission is three-fold: to actually demonstrate and declare that creative arts expression can improve health and well-being for individuals and community. To explore that very important idea. Very relevant to SAIC and many of the students and faculty here.

But also, to look at innovative programming in ways we can bring creative expression forward in a way to improve health and well-being.

And our final mission is to research in the basic underpinnings of creative expression and health and why it works and how it works.

What are you here to talk about today?

It’s a pleasure to be here today, in particular, to talk about loneliness and isolation, a growing personal and public health challenge. And when we speak to the community later today I’ll introduce three big ideas.

The first really goes back to the mission for the foundation, the big idea that creative arts expression can improve health and well-being. So that the arts, in addition to being something that intrigues us and entertains us and distracts us, actually can improve our health.

The second big idea is that loneliness and isolation is the silent epidemic of the 21st century. Many of us understand loneliness and isolation as something that can make you feel a little sad sometimes, a little rejected. We know it’s a big risk for suicide, depression and substance abuse. But many people are not aware that loneliness can actually have other harmful health effects. So that the early mortality, for instance, of people who are lonely, is often as high as for people who smoke cigarettes. So, again: loneliness isn’t just something that makes you miserable. It can kill you.

The third, which we’re very eager to explore in the talk today, is that there is something about the creative expression that can connect us, foster a sense of belonging and community and push back against that loneliness epidemic.

We’d love to hear more about initiatives that the foundation has carried out to date and that might be relevant. Can you tell us, for example, about The UnLonely Film Festival?

The UnLonely Film Festival launched last May, as an effort to really create awareness on the topic of loneliness and its importance to individuals and to communities. The UnLonely Film Festival is part of our signature initiative, The UnLonely Project, which we actually launched two years ago. So that UnLonely Project takes the broad view in trying to create awareness in general on the importance of loneliness, and then the film festival is a very purposeful offering to the community to put 35 short films, out for open viewing, that really cover topics many people find uncomfortable – loneliness and isolation – but in watching those films, people engage with the topic, feel more educated about it, can actually have dialogues with other people about it and feel more connected.

I’m aware that your foundation has been around for 15 years or so, is that correct? Did you know going into it that loneliness would become or be a focus of the foundation? 

Well, interestingly, when we started the foundation, which really got started after 9/11, we were very focused on trauma. We were very impressed with the effectiveness of our therapy in traumatized kids, in particular, after 9/11, who were watching the media clips over and over of the planes going into the buildings and were quite disturbed. And even simple art therapy techniques of “Draw what’s on your mind” helped those kids a lot get over that trauma. So we were intrigued by that, and then went on to work with returning service members and veterans from Iran and Afghanistan, and again with very good effect in trauma.

As we expanded our efforts to address other challenges of everyday life, many of them around chronic illness or severe illness or end of life, we actually took those same techniques and were intrigued that what a lot of people talked about was how the arts and creative expression made them feel more connected and less lonely. Interestingly, we were not looking for that result. We thought, “Okay, it’ll give people more of a sense of self-esteem” or it’ll educate them more about themselves and the world. But almost invariably, people felt very connected through their use of the arts, particularly in sharing it with other people and receiving the art of other people. So that observation is what led to The UnLonely Project. And of course, the urgency of that project was made even more clear to us as medical science started revealing this risk of early death from loneliness and as how social commentators and others have pointed out: loneliness is getting worse. Those three things came together and that’s what got The UnLonely Project started.

Any thoughts about how come loneliness is getting worse in this culture?

Right, so why is loneliness getting worse? It’s really a great question and I don’t think anyone has the full answer. But for one thing, we know that migration from place to place, driven by politics, economics, where you leave your city of origin, your country of origin, this is increasing worldwide. So we know there are migration patterns which take people away from their homes and familiar places of origin.

The other aspect that seems to be increasing is a kind of divisiveness in society itself. For race, gender, class reasons, more and more people feel polarized from people who are not like them. This increase of divisiveness is no doubt fueling this sense of loneliness and isolation.

The final, intriguing question is: social media, Facebook, Instagram, the digital world that at some level connects us, may actually keep us from being connected, and we’re very interested in the risk of that negative impact, particularly in young adults and adolescents, whose worlds are more and more shaped by social media.

Here at SAIC, we’re interested in belongingness as a concept and idea that we are thinking through, and what it means to belong here on our campus. Who feels like they belong? Who doesn’t? Can you help us to understand how belongingness and loneliness are connected and are related to each other?

You know, we think belonging and connection is actually the flip side of the same coin, that on the other side is loneliness and isolation.

Imagine it visually: Is there a seat for you around the table? Do you feel welcome? Do you feel anticipated by the community you want to be a part of, recognized for who you are? If you do, you often feel connected and you feel a sense of belonging. If you don’t, you feel isolated and disconnected.

And just to share with you: some of the populations we know are most impacted by loneliness are older adults and caregivers for those older adults. Often struggling with the challenge of managing those complexities, they withdraw more and more from their community, even family and friends, and as results are even less able to deal with the stress of what they need to manage on a daily basis.

Can you see some opportunities with say, a college student population, to effect that in any way?

We’re very interested in so-called “intergenerational programs.” Imagine a scenario where an older adult who has a lifetime of experience, strong opinions, a heart filled compassion and empathy and wants to share that with someone else in a useful way, has a chance to have a conversation with a young adult who may be struggling with identity or discrimination or some other circumstance. It’s very clear to us and there are many programs that have been successful, that having an opportunity for intergenerational story-making and story-sharing actually brings everyone together and provides a sense of belonging and community even in groups that may previously have not had much to do with each other.

Something that you’re really focused on is story making and storytelling. Can you say more about the central place that has in your foundation’s work and in the creative art therapies?

In many ways, we are our stories. And one of the powerful uses of creative expression is an entry point into finding our story, shaping our story and sharing our story. And so we think it’s fundamental to connection and belonging to have those stories, to feel proud and entitled and an agent of your own story, and to have that story when you share it be welcomed by other people. And both sides benefit. The people listening to the story also feel connected and feel like they belong in a sense to the larger narrative that’s created by the sort sharer.

You’re both a physician and a poet, an artist. Can you say more about how those two identities come to play in your thinking on these matters, and what kind of advantages come from being both?

You know, it’s interesting. In my both formal training to be a physician as well as the practice of medicine, you’re always trying to pay attention, see what’s going on with the patient, what’s going on with the illness, really understand the complexity of the experience. In a sense, poetry is exploring in similar ways. What’s below the surface? What’s going on here? What do I need to know about this situation and how can I reveal it? How can I be helpful? So in an interesting way, I think they have similar goals.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just to share that I think the work you’re doing here at SAIC, first of all, to declare the importance of belonging, celebrate that, support it, draw the attention of both the SAIC community and perhaps even the broader community to the importance of connection and belonging is a huge public health opportunity. We think the epidemic of loneliness and isolation isn’t going to stop, so we need to come up with creative, effective, scalable and sustainable ways to address it.

We appreciate the work your foundation is doing to highlight loneliness as an idea that we need to talk about and pay attention to as well. I think there’s a great value in that and we’re interested in continuing to think through how these concepts of compassion and belonging and loneliness interact and are related to each other. I think fleshing all of those out can only benefit our students and really all our community members here at SAIC. Appreciate the work you’re doing with the foundation. It’s genuinely inspiring.

Thank you and it’s a pleasure to be here and be part of the work you’re doing.

The Foundation for Art & Healing