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Health humanities laboratory looks to bridge medical, social sciences

Texture courtesy of Adobe Stock.

This article is part of the Mental Health Collaborative, a project completed by nine North Carolina college newsrooms to cover mental health issues in their communities. To read more stories about mental health, explore the interactive project developed specifically for this collaborative.

When imagining a UNC research lab, a repurposed library in Greenlaw Room 524 might not come to mind. And when thinking about health research, literature and rhetoric probably also don’t come to mind. 

But the English and comparative literature department's Literature, Medicine and Culture program and affiliate Health and Humanities Interdisciplinary Venue for Exploration Lab are changing that vision.

Co-directed by English professors Jordynn Jack, Jane Thrailkill and Kym Weed, the HHIVE Lab opens a space of vertical collaboration between undergraduates, graduate students and faculty to share their research projects and insights across departments. They work to bridge humanities and STEM fields with the interdisciplinary study of health humanities.

Weed was a pre-med major in college. However, scientific methods didn’t answer her bigger questions about health equity. She later realized her interests in the humanities were relevant to what felt like a different sphere of medicine. 

Kaleigh Sullivan is a LMC master's student researching substance abuse recovery. She said studying mental illness in particular can be incredibly complex and requires both sociological and scientific approaches. 

Another master's student, Dailihana Alfonseca, studies female insanity in immigrant women and how it manifests in their creative works. She said scientific data in mental health research often alienates immigrant identities and does not speak to all aspects of their lives. 

Alfonseca said she hopes to initiate creative writing programs that help disadvantaged community members process trauma. She was inspired from writing a short story about the death of her mother, as well as her own immigrant experience and depression.

“So ideally, my research is a way for me to teach mental health providers, teach psychiatrists, teach psychologists that when a person chooses to write a short story that reflects the environment that they grew up in — that is medical research,” Alfonseca said

In immigrant stories, often family members with mental health issues are deemed "crazy," when, in reality, they are manifesting traumas they have experienced in their lives, Alfonseca said.

Ph.D. candidate Paul Blom studies the representation of psychological trauma and violence in literature and media. In his work with early-20th century American literature, he has found that authors were still able to recognize trauma even without the clinical language we know today. 

“The idea is helping someone see themselves and realize, ‘Oh, this is what I'm going through' — or at least, 'I feel represented, I'm not the only person,’ — it matters on so many levels, even if we're looking at work decades ago," Blom said.

Health humanities can also venture outside of prose. Poems, photography, art and research are just a few examples of submissions published by the student-led Health Humanities Journal

Dance is also a creative way to study health narratives.

In Jack’s past research about how writing can help peoples’ experiences living with diabetes, an undergraduate student working on the project in the HHIVE Lab found that participants in the study had a pattern of bad experiences with body image. The student thought of dance as a different way to be in one's body and initiated a diabetes and dance research project.  

“I think that's really unique that we're in a space where undergraduates can drive a project and make it happen,” Jack said.

Catherine Pabalate joined the HHIVE Lab at the beginning of her sophomore year. She is in the process of submitting a research proposal about drug campaigns for HIV/AIDS and the extent they promote responsibilization — when a patient is charged with the responsibility of remaining healthy. 

The concept of responsibilization also has a huge impact on mental health care, Pabalate said

“There's this mindset that mental health is a ‘you problem,’” she said. “It's due to factors in a person's life, and it can sometimes overlook the more structural factors that may be causing the stress that leads to poor mental health.”

According to Weed, health is often framed as a binary — either healthy or sick — when in reality, there’s a continuum.

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Some people have found it helpful to think of mental illness as a disability, needing more support systems and accommodations, rather than as an intrinsic problem, she said.

“So [mental health] seems like a kind of groundswell from students," Weed said. "These are questions that they're grappling with, and want to understand through these lenses of disability studies, health humanities, and I'm sure this is also true in other disciplinary contexts as well.”

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