When an early 20th century painter by the name of Juliet Thompson asked Abdu’l-Baha, the eldest son of Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, whether art is a worthy vocation, Abdu’l-Baha responded by stating that “Art is worship … The more thou strivest to perfect it, the closer wilt thou come to God.”
When an actor mentioned the art of drama and its influence, Abdu’l-Baha expressed that “… drama is of the utmost importance … It has been a great educational power in the past; it will be so again.”
Fast forward to the year that was 2020 – the pandemic, racism, rising death tolls, and one environmental catastrophe after another led to one of the most confusing, isolating, anxiety-ridden, and tumultuous years in living memory.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder increased considerably in the United States from April to June 2020, compared to the same period the year before. Overall, 40.9% of respondents to a CDC recent survey reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition that had been triggered by the pandemic. In 2020, Americans saw an increase in symptoms such as anxiety disorder, depression, increased substance use, trauma, and stressor-related disorders – all triggered by the pandemic.
Taking a step back to a time that predated the COVID-19 pandemic, many people could expect to experience some form of mental illness, either directly or indirectly, throughout the course of their lives. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, by age 40, about 50% of the population has experienced a mental health crisis, but only half of that population is known to seek out professional help. In the United States, data compiled by the National Alliance for Mental Illness shows that 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness in any given year.
So what can we do if we, or someone we know, experiences signs of trauma, anxiety and depression? Can we employ the great educational power of art and drama to help?
To lead us in this exploration, our Cloud9 guest artist in this episode is Baha’i-inspired mental health professional and drama therapist Rezal Martinez-Gillies.
Rezal holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology with a concentration in drama therapy. She has further training in the expressive arts and mindfulness, and is passionate about sharing these tools of transformation with her clients. Following an opportunity to share the transformative power of theatre with inmates at San Quentin State Prison, Rezal had the honor of supporting teen refugees and underserved families in California. Inspired by the teachings of the Baha’i Faith, Rezal uses storytelling, the creative word, and the arts as instruments to empower and support her clients on their journey.
We begin our conversation by asking Rezal why she describes herself and her practice as Baha’i-inspired, and what this means to her. Rezal shares how the idea of coherence – having her actions and words reflect her inner beliefs in a coherent manner — became greatly important to her early in her practice.
We continue by learning about Rezal’s unique introduction to the arts, including her intimate experience with the healing power of drama, theater, and improv. We also explore what led her to study the field of mental health, and how she discovered drama therapy.
For those of us who may not have experienced some form of counseling, therapy, or coaching before, or explored the healing power of drama therapy, we ask Rezal to walk us through what a typical drama therapy session looks like. Each session varies depending on the needs of the client, but generally involves a range of role-playing, improvisation, parallel play, scripting, theatrical performances, and message mapping, all facilitated by a registered drama therapist. This creative approach provides endless possibilities for catering directly to the needs of the client.
We continue our exploration of mental health and drama therapy by exploring the nature of the soul, especially when someone is physically or emotionally suffering. Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, compares the soul to the sun. Even when the sun is hidden behind the clouds, we still see the sun’s inherent light. We ask Rezal to relate her practice to the following words from “Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah,” and explain how they influence her understanding of the soul in her work as a drama therapist:
Know thou that the soul of man is exalted above, and is independent of all infirmities of body or mind. That a sick person showeth signs of weakness is due to the hindrances that interpose themselves between his soul and his body, for the soul itself remaineth unaffected by any bodily ailments.
We then take the Baha’i concept of the soul one step further by exploring the following words of Abdu’l-Baha from the book “Some Answered Questions,” and Rezal recounts how she’s witnessed drama therapy help her clients bring something that is hidden into the realm of the visible:
In the creation of God, the rational soul of man encompasses and is distinguished above all other created things: It is by virtue of its nobility and distinction that it encompasses them all. Through the power of the rational soul, man can discover the realities of things, comprehend their properties, and penetrate the mysteries of existence. All the sciences, branches of learning, arts, inventions, institutions, undertakings, and discoveries have resulted from the comprehension of the rational soul. These were once impenetrable secrets, hidden mysteries, and unknown realities, and the rational soul gradually discovered them and brought them out of the invisible plain into the realm of the visible.
Rezal goes on to talk about intuition and its connection to the rational soul, as a sort of spiritual perception that she’s learned to harness in her practice as a drama therapist, through meditation and prayer. By focusing on her rational soul and setting an intention to engage with her rational soul, she is able to strengthen her intuition, trusting her sense of self and her higher nature.
We close the interview by exploring mental health at the level of the community, where seeking help is often stigmatized or discouraged. People of color or marginalized minorities may also experience racism, or a lack of cultural sensitivity, when they seek help or assistance. Rezal shares how she believes the mental health sector could shift to diminish and remove these barriers, and how art therapy can be utilized to create a space of diversity and inclusivity.
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