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Improvisational Theater Offers Mental Health Benefits for All Ages
By Marisa Markowitz

Improvisational theater, as most would agree, is fun and exciting to watch. People on stage have no script and act with mere suggestions from the audience. While certainly entertaining, research shows that taking improv classes also increases psychological well-being. In a study about social anxiety and intolerance of uncertainty, researchers found that participating in improv lowered feelings of depression and anxiety and increased feelings of connectedness and hope. Other studies demonstrate that being in a nonclinical setting is advantageous to the participants because classes foster self-efficacy, enhance comfort in performing for others, and provide a setting in which they can be willing to make mistakes. And for older adults who are especially prone to social isolation, research indicates that engagement in improv results in qualitative benefits such as an increased sense of comfort, enhanced problem-solving skills, and greater ability to navigate social situations. The psychological benefits of these courses are clear: improv offers a platform for individuals of all ages to improve their social, emotional, and psychological states. It is a way to meet new people, learn role-playing skills, and have something to look forward to each week.

COVID-19 and Psychodrama: Therapists Offer Improv-Related Techniques to Treat Depression and Anxiety
The COVID-19 pandemic increased feelings of depression and isolation, with huge spikes for young adults and adolescents. The World Health Organization found a 25% increase in depression and anxiety worldwide, with young adults and women especially vulnerable. Outside of the pandemic, approximately one in six adults will experience depression in their lifetimes, according to the CDC, and one in five young adults aged 16 to 24 experience a psychological problem in their lifetimes.

In the face of these statistics, it’s important for therapists to take initiative, home in on the best therapeutic interventions to combat social isolation and increase connection and community, and be resourceful when helping clients with psychological problems. One approach is to offer psychodrama as a therapeutic intervention. Psychodrama is a way for clients to reenact scenes from their lives and look at them from a different lens. Psychodrama offers them the possibility to reframe traumatic or intense experiences in a contained environment. It’s a tool used to treat anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other mental health conditions. Recreating events offers the client a way to relive the experience and afterward debrief with the therapist about the experience from an objective lens. The therapist is the facilitator of the scene, much as an improv teacher directs an improv class. An improv teacher might not be a therapist, but classes themselves are therapeutic.

The Therapist’s Toolbox: Key Components of Improv
Techniques used by therapists are similar to those used by an improv teacher during class. Therapists offer support in the form of validation, grounding, active listening, and open-ended questions. These are direct interventions that may seem simplistic but are the cornerstones of any therapy session. If a client sees a therapist to discuss traumatic experiences, the therapist will always listen, never interrupt, provide comfort, and ask questions to learn more about the problem and to provide support. These skills are related to those developed in an improv class.

Improv classes focus on engaging in an ongoing dialogue, during which the lack of structure lends itself to immediate validation and unconditional positive support. The use of “yes, and” is a technique that provides helps ideas flow and is never meant to negate an idea. For instance, a student who sets up a scene involving a bank heist will not expect classmates to recreate a scene at home or in another completely different setting. To keep a scene meaningful, participants must cue into each other’s tones, body language, and nonverbal communication. Participants learn how to navigate a scenario by leaning into the discomfort of uncertainty—of not knowing where the scene will go. In therapy, improvisational skills are helpful for planning for an event that may not go as planned. The goal for therapy and improv classes is to be okay with the resulting experience.

Accessing Resources for Clients and Learning Groupwork Skills Is Part of a Therapist’s Role
Clinical social workers and therapists can access materials from NASW, which offers networking events, continuing education opportunities, and other ways to learn from specialized clinicians.

Outpatient, inpatient, and transitional living facilities provide psychodrama therapy run by licensed clinicians. Some graduate programs offer concentrations in groupwork that will help social workers prepare to deliver this type of intervention. Students who enter the field armed with groupwork skills, which have demonstrated therapeutic value, will be in a great position to work at sites that focus on community and social engagement.

— Marisa Markowitz, LMSW, CASAC-T, studies the relationship between technology and its adverse effects on mental health, particularly for vulnerable populations. She can be reached at Marisa@marisamarkowitz.com.