On a recent Tuesday afternoon, second-year Psychiatry resident Eden Almasude, MD, MA, donned a bright red cape emblazoned with the Superman logo, gifted to her by a patient. As she arranged foam containers of traditional Caribbean food on long tables outside the auditorium at the Connecticut Mental Health Center (CMHC), a group of Spanish-speaking clients coalesced around her, making small talk as they lined up to get their lunches before heading into the auditorium to begin.
Elvis Crespo’s “Suavemente” echoed through the space as the group entered.
The session began – as was tradition, Almasude reminded the group – with a poem reading. Another actor performed a choreographed dance before the group launched into a series of exercises, all centered around the theme of storytelling.
Almasude leads ¡Cuéntanos!, a group that holds a vision of creating a healing space through storytelling, poetry, and theater.
“We are process-oriented and believe in the power of creative expression, of each individual and as a collective. A primary goal is to build connection and to create vibrant arts spaces for Spanish-speaking communities,” Almasude said.
To the untrained eye, the gathering might seem like anything but a psychotherapy session – and that’s intentional, Almasude said.
“From my perspective, I’m not trying to do this as a mental health intervention. I think arts work is intrinsically therapeutic in that art is part of being human, and creative expression is incredibly important,” she explained.
“When we’re alienated, that is a disconnection, which leads to illness and lack of wellbeing. Forming connection is healing. It doesn’t have to be a PHQ-9, or a depressive symptoms score, or a clinical assessment. I think there is something transcendent that happens when you’re working in the arts and you’re just being human together.”
“For those three hours a week … this is not the clinic anymore,” she said. “We’re sort of entering into a magical realm in which we’re not doctor and patient – we’re all actors, and we’re just doing theater and it happens to be a clinic.”
Almasude strongly believes in creating meaningful connections. She also has a deep passion for activism and social justice. Those perspectives have colored her approach to medicine.
Almasude has been able to intersect those interests through her work at The Hispanic Clinic at CMHC.
A career in medicine wasn’t something Almasude envisioned for herself while growing up in Appalachia. But she eventually came to view medicine as a means of spurring social and political change.
She started medical school at the University of Minnesota, but ended up leaving to do policy work in Washington, D.C., focusing on torture rehabilitation. She eventually returned after she found herself searching to find and create more humanity within health care.
“I missed clinical care and that’s when I realized there’s something incredibly special about that human connection you have with people,” she said. “I went back, did my psych rotation and loved it, and it was the first time I really imagined myself being a doctor.”
It hasn’t been easy. Almasude is of Amazigh descent (the indigenous group of North Africa) and she doesn’t often find people with similar class or ethnic backgrounds in the medical field. But her work at CMHC has quickly provided the community roots she was searching for.
“Medicine is already a very alienating field around class and race and immigration. Arts, very broadly, is also very alienating and elitist in a lot of places, and I didn’t think I could go into that and start to explore that for the first time, really, in my life … without being in a community of people who are like me … and [with] folks from similar kinds of backgrounds.”
“The Hispanic Clinic has embraced me, arms wide open,” she said. “They’ve been incredible in supporting me at every step of the way so it just felt right. They were excited about this and they believed in me really when I didn’t believe that I could even do this and that made a huge difference.”
Almasude’s group is working toward two final performances on March 21 and 28, at Bregamos Community Theater in New Haven. Almasude said the show will be a night of theatrical storytelling, centered around the theme of of “sueños y pesadillas,” or “dreams and nightmares.” After the show, the audience is invited to share a meal, followed by a substance-free dance party.
It will be Almasude’s first theater project, and she said she is grateful for the wisdom and mentorship of local theater makers Shilarna Stokes and Elizabeth Nearing.
She said during her outpatient rotation next year, she’d like to have a continuous group split into two halves of the year with performances at the end of each, to allow for more time to set up a performance. She’d also like to create an intergenerational group for families affected by deportation, to provide support and a space to tell those stories.
Her long-term goals include working at a recovery-oriented community mental health center, like CMHC, in an environment that encourages exploration of the arts and its intersection with mental health.
“I really believe in the role of a physician being a healer in society. I think we can do more work outside of the clinic than within it, oftentimes. We really need to change these fundamental things that are underlying the disconnection in society and I think a lot of mental health stuff really does come down to that lack of connection, the alienation.”