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Q&A | Dr. Kenneth Wells On His Third Opera Exploring Mental Health and US Veterans' Experiences

Dr. Kenneth Wells, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health professor-in-residence of health policy and management and writer of the award-winning opera ‘Veteran Journeys,’ answers questions about the trauma of war, family conflicts, mental health, homelessness recovery, and hope

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Date: 
Wednesday, October 27, 2021
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Dr. Kenneth Wells, professor-in-residence of health policy and management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, has spent years working with veterans in Los Angeles as a clinician and researcher. He also has sung and been a choral director since he was a teenager. Marrying the two interests, he wrote an award-winning opera called “Veteran Journeys,” that draws on his decades of experience as a practitioner.

More than just an opera, “Veteran Journeys” is also, to Wells, a documentary and shared lived experience that explores the trauma of war, family conflicts and homelessness — but also recovery and hope through receiving veteran services.

“Veteran Journeys” is Wells’ third opera that touches on mental health themes, and is based on research interviews from the RAND Corporation’s partners in care study and his own family members’ experiences.

The film was presented at an in-person screening Saturday, Oct. 30, followed by a discussion of health issues facing veterans in Los Angeles and across the United States. A streaming event followed Oct. 31. The work was honored with the "Special Jury Courage Award," for displaying the courage of veterans and those who serve them, at the 12th Annual Awareness Film Festival in Los Angeles Oct. 30-31. The festival had 175 films, and only two were recognized with the "Courage" prize.

“These (screenings and the award) are an honor for this opera, which concerns veterans with trauma from war, and with homelessness, and concerns their development of resilience in recovery through obtaining services,” said Wells, who teaches at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, Semel Institute, and David Geffen School of Medicine. “It also reflects family member and provider experience – and what motivates us for resilience in recovery.”

The work is sponsored by Healing and Education through the Arts (HEArts), which supports new art works to promote mental wellness and address mental health stigma. The opera is based on real stories of veterans, family members, and providers from interviews from the landmark “Partners in Care” study by RAND and UCLA, which completed interviews with veterans and their families at 10-year follow-ups. In an interview, Wells, who is also a professor at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, answered questions about the project:

Can you explain how the arts can function as an engagement strategy?

The arts can give people a sense of meaning and connection to the issues represented, and bring them through a “journey” that parallels the story. The community partners and stakeholders in the under-resourced areas where we work have strongly recommended using arts to engage in addressing mental wellness issues. This is part of what led us to develop the Healing and Education through the Arts (HEArts) program in the Semel institute, and encouraged me personally to use my interest in music and arts to develop operas on mental health-related themes.

What are some of the stigmas facing veteran mental health in particular?

For veterans, there is often little public understanding of the impact of exposure to elements of serving in combat. The opera particularly features Vietnam-era veterans and the impacts both for directly affected individuals and their “comrades.” The opera features the stories of two comrades from Vietnam — one of whom developed trauma-related symptoms, the other housing insecurity; but because they were “buddies” were able to support each other in receiving services — and starting (or getting to) recovery, which is the “journey.”

What has been some of the feedback from veterans who have seen the opera? What about the general public?

First, veterans and providers provided input into the libretto before it was finalized (even though it was based on true stories) to help make sure it reflected their perspectives. We did a formal survey before and after the premiere streaming performances, and also had discussions with the audience. A formal analysis was done and is under review as a scientific paper.

There don’t seem to be many operas about mental health awareness, let alone veteran mental health. What responsibility do you think you have in being (possibly) the first person to do this?

What makes it even more unique is that it’s based on actual research interviews. For this reason, it is also considered a documentary and is showing in the Awareness Film Festival as a documentary film on social issues. It’s being considered in other festivals as well. It’s also pretty unusual to do an evaluation of the impact of operas — something we have commented on in our papers under review.

by Madeline Adamo