Image of Steven Koppel taking a photo in the surf.
Steve Koppel ’82 realized photography was helping him cope with a family crisis—and that image-making might help others, as well.PHOTO: STEVE KOPPEL
The Arts

Visual Therapy
Digital imagery helps people express complex emotions.

By Elizabeth Kellner Suneby '80 / April–May 2024
April 8th, 2024

Two life-changing experiences led Steve Koppel ’82 to launch the Expressive Digital Imagery (EDI) Institute, a nonprofit that promotes healing and resilience for people dealing with debilitating mental or physical health conditions. The first, when Koppel retired and passionately pursued photography as a hobby; the second, when his family faced a mental health challenge and Koppel realized that image-making was instrumental in helping him cope. 

At the heart of EDI is a mobile app to enhance ordinary smartphone photos for self-expression, a Cloud-based platform to integrate images into evidence-based therapies, and a protocol for using the images to create connections among peers and with caregivers that would be impossible to achieve with the spoken word alone.

EDI serves a range of individuals, from children with autism to senior veterans with PTSD. A 60-year-old woman with bipolar disorder morphed a photo of tangled phone cords into an image that helped her son understand what a manic cycle feels like for her. A recovering drug addict in his 20s embellished an image of the front seat of his car where he used to get high to remind himself of the life he does not want to repeat. 

Having spent 20 years as a business consultant, followed by 10 years advising nonprofits, Koppel, a computer science concentrator, was primed to develop a digital therapy solution that could scale. “You could say I was wired to provide as many people as possible with a visual way to feel understood,” he says.

In creating EDI, Koppel partnered with Dana-Farber Cancer Center, McLean Hospital, and Gosnold Treatment Center to come up with a solution that hospitals, addiction centers, hospice organizations, community-based social services, and schools could license and implement on their own. 

Results have been impressive: “EDI enabled patients at a psychiatric unit as well as pediatric residents working remotely during the pandemic to access and articulate deep emotions for the first time,” reports Dr. Michael Bennick, founding medical director of the Yale New Haven Health Office of Patient Experience and former associate chief of medicine of Yale New Haven Hospital. “For behavioral health treatments to be effective, professionals are dependent on patients expressing their feelings,” Bennick explains. The clinical director of a Yale inpatient psychiatric group, he said, reported deeper engagement and connection than typically achieved in group therapy. 

Over the past 10 years, the EDI Institute has served more than 20,000 people through partnerships with organizations including Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Boston Children’s Hospital, and Eli Lilly at cancer centers nationally. In the next 10 years, Koppel hopes to “bring the power of EDI to as many people as possible in ways we haven’t yet imagined.” 

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April–May 2024