“Are you suicidal?” the doctor asks.

Before answering, the patient turns his head from side to side, closes his mouth, crosses his arms, then says, softly, “No.”

It’s not a real-life interview, but a depiction of how videos produced by West Virginia University psychiatry professor—and theater aficionado—Donald Fidler can teach his students about what they’ll really experience.

His students could read about the physical symptoms of depression, but by seeing the signs of mental illness, the students are challenged to use more than what a patient tells them to detect maladies and to become more sensitive to a patient’s feelings.

In this case, the patient’s body language says, “Yes,” even though the words say, “No.”

In all, Fidler, who has been at WVU for 20 years, has produced more than 100 videos and covered such topics as: depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, conduct disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder

“I’ve had students who’ve come up to me who graduated 15 years ago and are out in practice tell me they still remember the videos,” he said.

Acting since he was 10 in the North Carolina mountains, Dr. Fidler, the Farnsworth Endowed Chair for Educational Psychiatry in WVU’s Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry, has blended his explorations of the human mind to treat patients or give a good performance while providing a resource to thousands of students worldwide.

“What we’re teaching with the videos is making it more real life because students have to learn to look, to listen and then put that together,” he said.

Click below to hear Dr. Fidler explain the skills students can learn from seeing the signs of mental illness.

[ Click to listen ]

He began creating the videos when he taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and continued when he started teaching at West Virginia University in 1987. This summer, Fidler and two film producer brothers, Andrew and Matt Rubin, launched Symptom Media, a subscription service of professionally produced short videos depicting more than 100 mental illnesses.

Fidler, who teaches a spring course called psychiatry and theater for WVU’s Theater Department, has a good vantage point to spot the erroneous depictions of mental illness in popular culture.

“Actors, when they’re playing a character with schizophrenia or who is intoxicated or has bipolar disorder, often they don’t base it on real experience,” he said. “They base it on what they’ve seen in the movies. They don’t base it on real life.”

Popular videos
In 1979 when Fidler showed his videos to the American Psychiatric Association, he was one of about four doctors in the country who were producing them to model mental health symptoms. He went on to chair the association’s video committee.

He didn’t know the videos were being used by high school and college students and ministers until he changed some links on the website, and e-mails filled his inbox from people asking where the videos were.

Since he put a counter on the site in 2008, he’s found that more than 48,000 people have viewed the videos page.

One Illinois professor informally tested how the videos helped students understand the material and she found that the half who had viewed the videos did better on their tests than the half of the class who did not.

Susan Newfield, a professor in WVU’s School of Nursing, believes her students are more prepared upon graduating after seeing mental illness symptoms acted out.

“Students tell us all the time that when they’re working in a clinical area like ICU, and they have a patient that’s demonstrating the symptoms we’ve seen, they say ‘I know that; I’ve seen that before,’” she said.

With simulation becoming an increasingly important part of teaching and the growth of online education, WVU has helped to create this resource to assist providers in giving the best service.

“I just think they’re a very valuable tool, and I’m excited that Don expanded on them,” she said. “I’m really pleased with that.”

Fidler said the visual recognition gives more to a student than a strong diagnostic tool. It builds empathy.

“If we pull people’s emotions in, their hearts are involved, and then they care about it, and they’re going to want to learn more about it,” he said.

Newfield calls the portrayals honest.

“Popular culture is for the shock value,” she said. “If you show the everyday mundane, it wouldn’t be a big deal.”

Click below to hear Dr. Donald Fidler discuss the benefits of working at WVU.

[ Click to listen ]

WVU mix
Aside from giving students a resource, Fidler is able to combine his two loves of psychiatry and theater and reach across departments to create new projects.

“It’s nice to have a university that allows me to work in both areas,” Fidler said.

He’s been invited to teach courses that blend psychiatry and history or psychiatry and theater, and his department invites music, art and theater departments to give presentations.

“It’s very family-like,” he said. “People just love cross-fertilizing fields. That’s really what’s fun.”

By Diana Mazzella
Communications Specialist
WVU News and Information



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