Innovation in Mental Health: Spontaneous or Renaissance Thinking?

By Adam Graham, LPC-MHSP

We need innovative solutions to the mental health problems our communities are facing. How do we respond to increasing rates of depression and anxiety, the overuse of emergency rooms for mental health care, high rates of death by suicide and drug overdose, and budgets that never seem to cover what’s needed?

I’ve spent years facing these problems, yet I haven’t spent nearly as long considering the question that makes solving the problems possible: How does innovation happen?

I used to think innovation was the result of creative people’s spontaneous thinking. Imagine Alexander Graham Bell inventing the telephone by casually walking down the road and shouting, “Wait! Why walk to deliver this message on foot when I could transmit my voice through vibrations and current over wire!” Viola! Spontaneous innovation.

When I began reading the biographies of great innovators, however, I found they took a different approach. Leonardo Da Vinci transformed art not by obsessing about its current limitations, but by dialoguing with disciplines outside of art. Leonardo studied anatomy and the muscles that move lips to craft the world’s most intriguing smile. He talked with scientists about light, optics, and geometry to lead the Renaissance innovation of dimensionality in art. This was the spirit of the Renaissance, to learn broadly across disciplines and innovate through connection.

Four hundred years after Leonardo, Robert Oppenheimer led the Manhattan Project in pioneering the era-defining innovation of nuclear fission. He did this by the Renaissance method of finding connections in diverse ways of thinking. Growing up, Oppenheimer loved reading the classics in Greek and Latin, reflecting on French poetry, and admiring Dutch art. He continued this practice of absorbing diverse information and finding connections as a theoretical physicist and leader. In the daunting task of resolving the constant scientific arguments during the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer was famous for listening to both sides, pointing out connections in the diverse ways of thinking, and thus illuminating a way forward.

In today’s age of unbelievable information and connection potential, the key ingredient now is the will to learn broadly across disciplines. For mental health innovation, what Renaissance connection is out there waiting for us? Here are a few promising directions I’ve seen:

  • Learning about hospitality from the best restaurants in America. The trade of fine dining has mastered the art of making people feel welcome. Patrons walk in the door to find themselves honored guests with rapport built quickly from intentional acts of service. Every crisis service faces the challenge and opportunity to make the most of welcoming and building rapport with their guests.
  • Imitating professional sports teams in their skill of giving, receiving, and using continual feedback. The unbelievable level of mastery on display in basketball, baseball, or soccer comes about through a culture of feedback that catalyzes growth. Mastering evidenced-based practices, effective communication, or therapeutic skill likewise requires a culture of helpful feedback. The mental health field can learn from the teams who for decades have cultivated this culture and practice.
  • Asking the automobile industry how they succeeded where suicide prevention has struggled: preventing deaths that cannot be predicted. The number of deaths from motor vehicle accidents has decreased by 50% over the past 30 years, despite the inability to predict who will die in a car crash. Suicide prevention also faces the challenge of unpredictable deaths. The automobile industry offers the unique solution of focusing intervention on environments, and not individuals.
  • Seeking lessons from professors of literature and philosophy about the millennia of reflections on pursuing a meaningful life in the midst of pain. The mental health field need not try in heroic isolation to help others face the daunting question of “What makes life worth living in the midst of pain?” Mental health agencies can develop clinical programs, counseling group directions, and philosophies of care from the lifetimes of work invested in thinking about humanity’s questions.
  • Receiving mentorship from landscapers on creating beautiful spaces. Thomas Kirkbride, the great mental health reformer of the 1840’s, designed hospitals with meticulous landscaping, flowerbeds, and greenhouses. His insight, “It should never be forgotten that every object of interest that is placed in or about a hospital for the insane, that even every tree that buds, or every flower that blooms, may contribute in its small measure to excite a new train of thought, and perhaps be the first step towards bringing back to reason, the morbid wanders of the disordered mind.” No one knows how to sculpt beauty and create calming spaces better than the landscapers who have honed this craft for centuries.

Our communities need innovative solutions when facing mental health problems. Instead of waiting for a spontaneous innovation, we can listen to those outside of mental health and find the connections for the way forward. Let’s follow the Renaissance path, blazed by those who have changed the world.

Book References:

Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (2017).

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin (2006).