September 19, 2019

The Center Cannot Hold - Event Synoposis

On September 12th, the GlobalMentalHealth@Harvard Initiative and the Harvard Law School Project on Disability hosted a presentation and excerpt performances from “The Center Cannot Hold,” an opera composed by psychiatrist Kenneth Wells. The opera is based on law professor Elyn Saks’ memoir on her experience with schizophrenia. The event was held in the Hilles Performance Center for over 150 attendees.

“The Center Cannot Hold” focuses on Saks’ history of mental illness and her frequent hospitalization. Wells, a close friend, adapted the memoir into an opera in an effort to dispel ignorance surrounding mental health. Wells addressed his reasoning for collaborating on the project, saying that “it’s really the use of art to humanize experiences that people distance themselves from.”

According to Mental Health America, a community nonprofit, over 11 million Americans experience psychotic symptoms in their lifetime. Symptoms typical of schizophrenia are auditory or visual hallucinations, abnormal behavior, and personality alterations, among others. Saks’ and Wells’ goal is to destigmatize these maladies, providing an informative platform to better understand the underlying struggles of mental illness sufferers.

Other professors agree that engaging in opera performances is quintessential to educating audiences. Allison Voth, an associate opera professor at BU, feels that operas are unique artistic spaces for discussion. “They’re safe vehicles and expressive vehicles to talk about these issues and to open people up,” Voth said. Saks, a professor at USC Gould School of Law, hopes to reach listeners by providing a visual, artistic medium and emotionally addressing public stigma. Her purpose for putting on the production is to bring attention to poor mental health treatment, apathetic hospitalization, and “how toxic and traumatic some of the responses can be.”

The program included excerpts from the original opera, with three singers and Wells on piano. The singers included, Maggie FinneganRyne Cherry, and Wes Hunter. More information about the singers can be found here in the event program. Maggie Finnegan portrayed Saks in the song titled, “I Could Be That Person.” The scene focuses on Saks’ sudden surge of hope in the face of her schizophrenia. “I really just think it’s about perseverance,” Finnegan said, after her performance. “If… you stick with the will to have the life that you want, it can happen.” Lyrically and musically, Saks believes the opera allows sufferers to see hope personified through song and feel less alone. According to Saks, her goal was to make mental illness digestible for all audiences, creating a safe space for productive discussion and support.

Speaking before the performance, Saks emphasized the importance of schizophrenics seeking help. “There’s actually a lot of evidence that ‘length of untreated psychosis leads downstream to more brain damage,’” Saks said, “so it’s really important to get treatment early.” According to the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, symptoms of schizophrenia left unchecked can result in increased neurological damage and complications with treatment.

Composer Wells, a proponent of recovery through the arts, explained that music encourages persistence in the face of anxiety and fear. Wells shared his impact on low-income neighborhoods in providing artistic healing to patients. “[Community partners] felt the arts were very important, so we supported some of our clients, patients, in doing plays about their lives,” Wells said. Wells believes that combating mental illness with low-cost methods, such as writing and performing, empowers under-resourced areas to fight diseases typically left untreated.

In regards to musical therapy, Professor Voth addressed how opera is an important venue for offering dialogue. “When you pair music with extraordinary stories that are very powerful, it’s incredible,” Voth said. “It can really take people to different levels of understanding and feelings about a subject matter that they might normally be closed to.”

Jack Schultz, a Harvard graduate student, remarked that the opera encourages mental illness education and efficiently disseminates information to audiences. Schultz thought “The Center Cannot Hold” was an appropriate place to discuss the incubation of insensitivity in regards to mental illness.“I’m fascinated [by] the role that education plays in producing stigma,” Schultz said. “And particularly the kind of tragically ignorant comments that Elyn [Saks] received.”

The opera stages violent scenes of forced restraint and intensive medication. Saks, having experienced aggressive hospital staff and severe lack of emotional care while hospitalized, felt abandoned in a world that seemed not to care for her well-being. Due to modernized medical technologies, Saks recalls that her schizophrenia has become less severe and that fewer symptoms appear in her daily life. Saks stresses that personalized, diversified treatment is paramount to mental illness recovery. “Everybody’s different; different people respond in different ways,” Saks said. “It’s not one-size-fits-all.”

In the hopes of motivating audiences to reflect on their own mental health and the health of those around them, Wells and Saks aspire to reach wider audiences and impact viewers in a profound way. Wells reiterated that “the opera is, in a sense, saying it is possible to recover your life.” Wells is currently composing his next opera, which focuses on veteran resilience and recovery. Saks’ memoir, “The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness” is available now.

Event synopsis article written by GMH@Harvard guest blog writer Cameron MorsbergerCameron is a sophomore at Boston University studying journalism and psychology. She attended the event because she is fascinated by public perception of mental health issues and the underlying difficulties in communicating mental illness to audiences. As a personal issue for her, she was seeking to learn about mental illness to advocate for those afflicted by it. She finds that music has an incredible therapeutic element, and wanted to witness that healing process first-hand.