Creating Healthy Narratives

Creating Healthy Narratives

As an intern at Boston Children’s Hospital, Yuko Okabe 17 IL uses illustrations and bright colors to draw young patients into the interview process.

At RISD Illustration major Yuko Okabe 17 IL has learned that being a good illustrator is not just about developing and expressing your own voice, it’s about reaching out and communicating with others. As a summer Maharam STEAM Fellow, she’s using her character development talents to reach kids at Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH) who are dealing with mental health issues such as anxiety and hyperactivity.

“Children respond to stories,” Okabe points out. “The project I’m working on uses storytelling to help psychotherapists and other caregivers communicate with kids and teach them different skills related to executive function and other cognitive behaviors.”

Okabe has teamed up with game developers at Neuro’motion, a startup that works closely with clinicians in BCH’s Department of Psychiatry, to contribute to a biofeedback game for children aged 6–12 that helps them regulate intense emotions via therapeutic coping skills. When young players follow the game’s narrative, their heartrates are monitored as they face increasingly difficult challenges. They can see how high their heartrate is rising by looking at a gauge on the screen and can only move up to the next level by staying calm enough to keep their heartrate below a certain number.

“Children respond to stories.”
Maharam STEAM Fellow Yuko Okabe 17 IL

Now that the game has been piloted in a school setting, the team is developing a Beta version kids can play at home. Okabe is working to create screen designs and a friendly guiding character that motivate children to keep playing.

“I wanted to enter the mental health space and help children,” says the rising senior. After proposing the idea to the Maharam committee, a group of faculty and staff at RISD that reviews proposals for these highly coveted paid summer internships, she worked with Lisa Kramer in RISD Careers to find the right partner. Her supervisor and mentor, Neuro’motion cofounder and Chief Science Officer Jason Kahn, has been incredibly helpful, she says, adding that “he has a keen sense of design and gives really good, clear feedback.”

Since much of Okabe’s work this summer involves conducting interviews with patients, parents and clinicians, she’s pleased to have amassed some relevant experience at RISD. As a first-year student in Professor Ken Horii’s Spatial Dynamics studio, for instance, she learned that open-ended questions tend to elicit honest and specific answers. In tackling a project “about creating a visual representation of space,” she recalls, she “asked random Providence residents to respond to different adjectives describing spaces like ‘tight,’ ‘cozy’ and ‘wide.’”

This summer Okabe has also learned that the wording of her questions is important, particularly with kids, and that it helps to be transparent about the notes she’s gathering. Rather than taking cryptic notes on a small pad, she lays out a big sheet of paper and colored markers on a table when she conducts an interview so the subject can see what she’s writing and drawing and chime in if she appears to be getting off track.

“This internship is feeding my illustration and adding to my understanding of the world's diversity.”

Although she’s learning things in a hospital setting she couldn’t possibly learn in the studio, Okabe is also drawing on lessons learned in Illustration classes she has taken in the past. Making Play, for example, taught by Illustration Critic Jason Beene, “really pushed us to incorporate [a clear] story when designing a game,” she says. And Design for Good, taught by Annalisa Oswald, focused on image-making as a “tool for invoking empathy” and showed her the importance of understanding the demographic you’re trying to reach.

As her internship draws to a close, Okabe is looking ahead to her senior year and beyond and thinking about how her experience at BCH might affect her future. “This internship is feeding my illustration and adding to my understanding of the world’s diversity,” she says. “There are a lot of options in terms of what you can do with an Illustration degree, but educational games and toys interest me the most. I’m definitely thinking about how I can use art and design to help people or make them think in a different way.”

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