Meet The Wright Center’s New Director of Health Humanities
Scranton artist Allison LaRussa will offer purposeful projects to promote healing and prevent physician burnout
Baring a bit of her left shoulder, Allison LaRussa reveals a tattooed typewriter that pays homage to one of her inspirations.
“That’s my Sylvia Plath arm,” she says, gently laughing. “Plath is one of my favorite writers. She struggled with mental illness and was very vocal about it, so I can relate a lot to her poetry.”
Beyond mere body art, this image and others inked onto Allison’s arms and neck reveal more about her mindset and life purpose than any LinkedIn profile.
The Scranton native is foremost a creative soul. She is an artist/singer who knows firsthand the healing capacity of personal expression, whether through paints, clay, clothes, music, the written word or other outlets. She also is someone who copes with mental health illnesses and dares to talk openly about them so that others can be helped. And now, as of mid-2021, Allison is The Wright Center for Community Health’s recently hired Director of Health Humanities.
In the newly created role, Allison, 34, will promote wellness among The Wright Center’s employees, its patients and members of the broader community by engaging them in creative activities.
“No other health center that I know of has a position quite like this,” she says. “It’s such a progressive, amazing thing to have the creative arts in a medical facility.”
Dr. Linda Thomas-Hemak, President and CEO of The Wright Centers for Community Health and Graduate Medical Education, calls Allison “a valued member of our team.”
“She will nurture positivity and resiliency within individuals and at the organizational level, which is particularly relevant as we collectively emerge from the pandemic experience,” Dr. Thomas said.
Allison’s art sessions will blend some Bob Ross-style instruction – for example, on painting murals or making a mixed-media collage – with a relaxed, therapy-like atmosphere. She expects to frequently engage with physicians and other healthcare providers, exercising their ability to balance the scientific regions of their brains with the parts that spark when deciding whether to dab a pencil-thin paintbrush in, say, ultramarine blue or magenta.
Among those expected to benefit: The Wright Center’s physician trainees.
These medical residents and fellows, like their counterparts in programs across the country, deal with the dual pressures of delivering top-notch care to patients and simultaneously completing rigorous graduate medical education requirements. Add in the stresses from their personal lives, plus the complications and uncertainty of dealing with COVID-19, and it’s a recipe for sky-high anxiety.
“Our art activities at The Wright Center will be designed to decrease a lot of stress and burnout,” says Allison. “The projects will allow people to be more mindful, to process more, so that they are better able to handle their work.”
A 2010 Marywood University graduate, Allison has long been active in the region’s arts scene.
She previously performed with Doghouse Charlie, a folk-indie-alternative band to which she contributed vocals. She’s been a fixture for many years with First Friday Scranton, watching it grow from a fringe activity to a popular monthly draw in the heart of the downtown. She’s even led art activities for children at Scranton’s McDade Park.
During a recent session at The Wright Center’s Scranton Practice, which was geared toward a more mature group of learners, she guided about 14 medical residents through a mask-painting exercise. The activity was intended to help them explore the concept of professional identity formation. Each participant received a paper mache-like mask and was asked to paint the outside depicting how they typically present themselves to the world. On the mask’s interior, they were encouraged to paint aspects of themselves that they are less prone to share with others but wish could be seen.
Allison’s purposeful projects in many ways complement The Wright Center’s emerging Lifestyle Medicine program. (So, too, do the classes she leads in the community as a certified Pilates instructor.)
A prevention-focused program, Lifestyle Medicine inspires people to take a proactive approach to their healthcare by controlling factors such as the foods they eat and how they manage stress. As she sees it, art can be a central part of this holistic way of achieving well-being and happiness.
“When we’re creating art, we are able to be mindful through the process,” Allison says. “Obviously when we’re more mindful, when we’re more present, we have less anxiety. In turn, we’re less susceptible to the negative mental and physical consequences of stress.”
Art activities will be offered at The Wright Center’s primary care practices in Northeastern Pennsylvania, as well as other sites, and reach all types of audiences: homeless individuals, school-age students, veterans and seniors, some of whom might be socially isolated and susceptible to depression.
Allison has a particular calling to assist people grappling with drug-and-alcohol and mental health issues. In her life, she has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, anxiety and depression.
Trained as a Certified Peer Specialist nearly six years ago, she fully appreciates the power of sharing one’s personal story of recovery with people who are currently ensnared by substance abuse and/or mental health challenges. “Hearing other people’s stories has helped me,” she says. “If they hadn’t been so open and vulnerable, I don’t know where I’d be at this point.”
To pay it forward, Allison seems to keep both sides of her own “mask” on perpetual display, relating her past internal struggles via informal conversations and more planned forums, including an occasional podcast. As a teenager, she never imagined that she would one day inject illegal drugs or spend time in jail. But, during this survivor’s journey, she has dealt with trauma, a sports injury, a sometimes overpowering emotional pain and an addiction that stemmed in large part from attempts to numb the hurt.
“I completely lost myself,” she once wrote. “I made many mistakes. … Lied endlessly to the ones I loved and hurt anyone in my path. My moral compass was completely nonexistent.”
Allison largely credits her family’s involvement for saving her; they dropped her at the doorstep of a treatment center where she got the right assistance at the right time. Art therapy became not only a source of personal consolation and inspiration but also a career path. In the years since, the Dunmore High School alumna worked at recovery centers in Carbondale and Waymart, offering clients the artistic tools and safe, supportive environments necessary to soothe, restore and possibly even reshape themselves.
“A lot of healing happens through the arts,” she says. “Sometimes people don’t want to discuss what they’re feeling during traditional talk therapy. So, to have an opportunity to paint or write about it makes it easier for people to process what they’re going through.”
Consider, for example, the rush on art supplies during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us apparently were compelled to visit the art store aisles because we had an urge to draw, paint and otherwise release our own mixed-up feelings – and fears – in a way that didn’t require speaking.
“The creative arts allow each of us to dive into that expression,” she says, “and to explore who we are as a person.”
With Allison’s assistance, many of The Wright Center’s employees and patients will be given opportunities to make those self-discoveries, sharing bits of themselves in artwork that is inwardly significant and outwardly beautiful.