They say 1 in 4 of us will suffer from mental ill health at some point and 1 in 5 adults have considered taking their own life at some point, so why is it only in the last few years that people have really started to speak up about it? And how is theatre helping to push these conversations forward?
Mental ill health has been a common theme in many plays recently such as Electrolyte by Wildcard Theatre, a hard hitting and honest insight into loss, friendship and mental health using music and spoken word and Dust by Milly Thomas, a play focused around youth suicide. But how much does it really help? I can only speak on behalf of my own experience, I am not a mental health professional, but I believe that the exploration of these topics in an artistic form helps to make experiences of mental health relatable to those affected and to those who know people who are affected. Which in turn allows people to feel like they can speak out and hopefully start open and honest conversations with their friends and family.
I founded 5asideTheatre, along with 4 other women, to use storytelling to spark conversations and break down taboos surrounding mental health. Our first show, ‘Side Effects’, performed in 2018 at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, commented on the pros and cons of anti-depressants. We used verbatim interviews from friends and family of different genders and ages to create this show. Putting on this play gave people a safe environment to open up in and I had friends and family members open up to me about their struggles more than they had ever done before. We went on to perform this show at a charity event with Wedlake Bell alongside mental health charity The Matthew Elvidge Trust. Our performance was followed by a Q&A where we and the audience had a very honest discussion about the themes in the play and their own experiences with mental health. Our second show, ‘Beyond: Sugar Mice’, performed at Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2019, interrogated the psychological effects of loneliness on young people, the tender beginnings of a queer relationship against the odds, and how far we’ll go to hold onto our illusions. This show was shortlisted for the Sit Up Awards 2019, awards that seek to reward and support work that spotlights contemporary social issues.
Mental health is something that is very personal and important to me. I have always been the support for a lot of friends and family through their struggles and theatre has helped me through my own. I was a shy and slightly awkward child who never fully felt like they fit in but when I was on stage, I was confident and would feel like I could do and be whoever I wanted. As I did more and more acting and met more and more interesting and like-minded people through acting, I became more confident in my own skin. It has really helped me through my darkest days and I have witnessed how the cathartic experience helps audience members through theirs.
I have worked on community led programmes using workshops to rehabilitate vulnerable people, one of the most memorable experiences was when I worked on a rehabilitation programme at Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre where I taught drama to young offenders. These programmes create a safe space for people to express themselves and allow to have an escape from their day to day lives. I could see first-hand the positive impact these workshops had on the actors and us tutors. These workshops are what inspired me to start creating my own work and how I ended up creating our first 5asideTheatre play with Giulia Hallworth, Tash Tudor, Ele Mckenzie and Zoe Aronson.
Here are 3 ways in which theatre has helped my mental health and the people around me:
- Community – you create close bonds to the people you perform with as you have to be empathetic, communicative and sensitive to everyone’s emotions and expressions. This creates a community where everyone feels comfortable to express themselves freely.
- Cathartic Experience – gives the audience members a visual aid to imagine the struggles of mental health and can allow them an escapism or an emotional release. It may also bring up themes that the audience start to question and talk about.
- Expression – allows people to release emotions and feelings that they may otherwise keep inside them. It allows you to create characters that may have gone through similar traumas so you can explore that trauma while still distancing yourself from it.
Theatre is by no means the only resource to engage with this topic but creativity, imagination and self-reflection make it a great medium to create social change and an open and honest community. So whether you are a self-professed ‘thespian’ or a first time theatre goer, give it a try as you never know what positive change may come to you and those around you.
By Ianthe Bathurst