Theater Tour Urges Communities to Talk about Mental Illness
Six years ago, Kristin Pedemonti stood on a subway platform in New York City, contemplating jumping into the path of an oncoming train. She leaned further and further forward, staring at the headlights advancing through the tunnel. At the last minute, she pulled back, not wanting to traumatize the train’s passengers. As the doors whooshed open, a woman put her hand on Pedemonti’s shoulder.
“It’s okay. It gets better,” the stranger said. “I’ve been there, too.”
Pedemonti had no idea how the woman knew what was going through her mind, but one thing was certain: she was not alone.
Pedemonti told her story onstage on Oct. 11, hoping to give others a metaphorical version of that stranger’s hand on her shoulder. She was one of 16 performers at This Is My Brave, a stage show in which participants spoke out about mental illness. Performers read poems and monologues, sang, and—in one case—did an interpretive dance.
“Our stories are more powerful than we realize,” Pedemonti said. “There’s healing in the stories once they’re shared. Healing for the listener. Healing for the teller as well, but mostly for other people to realize they’re not alone.”
This Is My Brave was jointly organized by a nonprofit of the same name and Our Door Community Wellness Center, which provides services to people with mental health and substance abuse issues. It took place at the Keegan Theatre, a cozy, brick-walled space in Dupont Circle. Keeping the sensitive subject matter in mind, organizers placed a box of tissues at the end of each row of seats. Proceeds went to Our Door.
The D.C. show, which ran for two nights, was one of many that will take place throughout the country this year.
Melinda Hasbrouck, executive director of Our Door, produced the D.C. and Baltimore shows with This Is My Brave co-founder Jennifer Marshall. Hasbrouck found out about the show while researching creative outlets for her clients.
Marshall’s own struggle with bipolar disorder, and her decision to publicly blog about it, inspired her to give others a space to speak out. She originally wrote anonymously, fearing the stigma attached to mental illness. But when the editor of a parenting blog asked her to write for them, she decided to use her real name.
“I was being recognized [as] someone overcoming mental illness, and I wanted to make a difference,”
Marshall said. “I wanted people to know that your life doesn’t end because of a diagnosis, and with support and help, you can get through it.”
After her story was published on the AOL homepage, Marshall said, she received calls and emails from people eager to share their own experiences. Realizing the “power of storytelling,” Marshall and her co-founder launched a Kickstarter in 2013, calling for donations to produce a show that would counter stigma. The response was enormous.
“We had a goal of $6500 for our first show, and we wound up raising over $10,000 in 31 days,” Marshall said.
The stigma Marshall mentioned can impact how people deal with their mental health, according to Kana Enomoto, acting administrator for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 55 million Americans met the criteria for a mental illness or substance abuse disorder in 2015, according to SAMHSA. Only 39 percent received treatment. While cost and access put up significant barriers, SAMHSA found that 35.1 percent of people who did not seek services cited “social concerns” — they were afraid of negative effects on their careers and social lives, or worried about confidentiality.
At a September briefing with the National Press Foundation, Enomoto said that changing the language used to talk about behavioral health, especially in mass media, can help break down these societal barriers to seeking treatment.
This Is My Brave first got people talking in 2014, when it premiered in in Alexandria, VA. In 2015, they put on six shows throughout the country. This year, there will be nine. Marshall expects even more in 2017.
After the D.C. show, artists described feelings of relief and hope.
“I just wanted to share some of my personal journey with…depression with others so they won’t feel alone,” said Tonyia Renee, who performed a monologue. “I wanted to share a piece of my story so I could continue to walk in my own recovery.” Many of the performers’ stories were hopeful. Waldon Adams, a marathon runner and case manager, credits running with turning his life around. Struggling with PTSD, manic depression, and substance abuse, he spent most of his adult life in psychiatric wards and hospitals. During one stay, he realized that jogging around his bed helped him feel better.
“I felt like a real person, almost,” he said.
Still, performers and organizers acknowledged that mental illness doesn’t just go away.
“There’s always happiness in everybody’s story, but this isn’t about putting a rosy picture on mental illness,” Hasbrouck said. “This is to get people saying, ‘Let’s talk about this.’”