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:
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.
Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (2017).
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin (2006).