The Use of Arts in Awareness & Prevention of Eating Disorders

A 3-part series by Robyn Hussa Farrell, Founder and CEO of Mental FitnessRobynhussafarrell

This three-part series will outline how we went from bringing an award winning rock musical around the country to producing evidence-based online educational tools, to opening an “arts prevention center” to bring awareness, intervention and primary prevention programs to children and families.

First, A Little History

In 2005 I produced a Jonathan Larson award-winning rock musical in NYC that led to many of my friends seeking treatment for addictions, eating disorders and many other mental health conditions.  The musical was called NORMAL and we learned that the “safety” of an award-winning musical performance served as a terrific catalyst for merging audiences with clinical psychologists and licensed therapists to assist people into treatment.  The “talk back” model is nothing new in the world of theatre, but in terms of managing a greatly stigmatized and misunderstood illness such as mental health[1], it was incredible to see people literally standing up after a performance of NORMAL to claim their illness and to get the help they so deserved.

Working closely with certified eating disorders specialists and educators, we began developing a curriculum that contained resources and handouts to accompany the live musical.  The process of creating a safe space, evidence-based curriculum, and highly engaging art piece resulted in individuals coming forward to seek treatment for mental health complications.  To date, more than 2000 people have came forward to seek treatment*[2] after experiencing the NORMAL THE MUSICAL program.

Eventually we toured it throughout the country to arts, medical and educational conferences.  In each community we learned that EVERY school had kids struggling with myriad of mental illnesses that weren’t being addressed.

Over the course of 8 years, we collected 23 binders filled with post show evaluations. The results of an analysis of these evaluations follow.

The insights learned along the way:

–  EVERY school has issues of mental health that they aren’t able to manage.  Today, prior to any training that we hold (whether it is “prevention-focused” or “awareness / intervention-focused”) we know that we need to ask the counselors and psychology team in a school what “THE” issue is.  The key is to ask the questions of the faculty & staff prior to holding trainings, in order to assess the specific needs of the school and connect them to appropriate support PRIOR to leading ANY training.

–  If we wanted to focus on prevention, we were “too late” by the time kids got to middle and high school.  We have to start in elementary school.

–  Many public schools do not know the Spanish speaking, public health, or Medicaid resources that are available, or how to go about connecting to them.  Our evidence-based “tiered trainings” now assist in connecting these important dots.

–  It was clear that faculty, staff, and coaches were not informed about the latest facts and needed separate instruction.  In fact, our findings led to creating a program called THINK.EAT.PLAY featuring a national advisory board with expertise in the female athlete triad, sports dietetics and prevention.  Our team met and developed surveys for coaches.  These will be outlined in the next post!

–  During one presentation at an urban middle school in Milwaukee, more than 45 children asked for a “private” session with a clinical psychologist.  We broke into a separate room and let them talk about all of the things that cause them stress – the overwhelming message over the course of the last 8 years is that kids are stressed out and need an outlet.

–  Administrators and educators wanted to hear the facts straight from the mouths of experts.  We needed to find a way to bring their research to schools, yet keep things interesting and engaging.  This is what led to our filming national researchers from multiple areas of science and incorporating award-winning arts (more about this in our second segment).

My own journey bringing this rock musical to schools led me to see that we have to provide education about the shared risk and protective factors for eating disorders much earlier – in the safest and most structured way possible.  It was in direct response to this work that we developed our “Tiered” training model in schools, which we will outline more in our next segment.

To watch a video from “Normal: The Musical” please click here

The evaluations performed on our rock musical program in schools between 2005 and 2009 are here:

Wauwatosa Health Department Evaluation of NORMAL THE MUSICAL:

Poster from initial evaluation of NORMAL THE MUSICAL in Wisconsin


Part two of this series will be featured in our April e-newsletter and can be found by clicking here. Part three can be found by clicking here.



[1] Corrigan, P., Mental Health Stigma as Social Attribution: Implications

for Research Methods and Attitude Change.  Clin Psychol Sci Prac 7:48–67, 2000

[2] Treatment is defined as an individual coming forward to speak to a licensed therapist, to request more information or support.


The original published post can be found here


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