In Their Words: Using Theatre to discuss Mental Health

Left to right: Micheala Hiltergerke and Pierre Leichner in Theatre for Living's maladjusted. Photo: David Cooper

Left to right: Micheala Hiltergerke and Pierre Leichner in Theatre for Living’s maladjusted. Photo: David Cooper

Mental health is hard to talk about at the best of times. That’s part of what makes Bell’s #Letstalk campaign so brilliant; encouraging people to talk about something that goes a long way in taking away stigmas and helping people realize that mental health issues are more common than we think.

Still, it’s hard to talk about. But what if we told stories instead?

One such story comes our way this month. For the first two weeks of March, Albertans will have the opportunity to watch maladjusted — an emotional, real-life on-stage depiction of the mental health system and the stigmatization that occurs within the system itself. The show began its Alberta run in Grande Prairie February 21, and after shows in St. Paul and Edmonton, moves to southern Alberta for March.

Produced by Vancouver’s Theatre for Living, the play tells the story of a young teenager struggling to come to terms with her friend’s suicide and is then misdiagnosed by a doctor who puts her on prescription drugs. A second plot sees a homeless man on prescription drugs have his life put in danger by well-meaning, but frustrated, social workers.

Real life experience

Written and performed by people who have personal experiences with the mental health system, the stories come from a place of truth, which makes them all the more compelling. According to the production’s website, maladjusted “seeks local solutions to this issue in terms of ways to provide and receive more ‘human centred’ care.”

“One of the roles of theatre, in my mind, is to make the invisible visible; to connect the dots between seemingly disconnected parts of a puzzle,” said David Diamond, Theatre for Living’s Artistic and Managing Director , when speaking to the Prince George Citizen in January.

“The issues of mental health and stigmatization, while being invisible to a great deal of the population, affect us all on a daily basis. Building public awareness of the issue is important to the overall health of our communities. It is an essential element of overall community wellness that health authorities, on which we rely for support in times of mental duress, be themselves healthy places for both clients and staff.”

maladjusted stars Micheala Hiltergerke, who was diagnosed with serious mental health issues as a teen, and Pierre Leichner, formerly an academic psychiatrist. The play also features veteran Canadian actor Sam Bob, as well as Martin Filby, Christine Germano and Columpa Bobb. Each of the actors brings with them their own experiences with mental health issues and the health care system, from being a patient, to a health care professional, to the cultural effects of alcohol, drugs and racism.

“[I’m] stoked to be a part of maladjusted,” Hiltergerke says in her bio. “[I hope] to shed some light on the stigma of a mental health label and the powerlessness of being diagnosed as: Crazy.” For his part, Leichner “hopes to bring out the conflict some health care professionals find themselves in, as well as some dehumanizing aspects of current clinical practice.”

Theatre for Living is based in the Theatre of the Oppressed style, using interactive techniques, art and interactions with the audience to address complex issues such as violence and suicide prevention, anti-racism workshops, youth empowerment, homelessness and mental health, bullying and community development. Since 1989, its work has moved away from the binary language and model of “oppressor/oppressed” and now approaches community-based cultural work from a systems-based perspective; understanding that a community is a complexly integrated, living organism.

More information about the play, the Theatre for Living and its work in talking about social issues through art can be found on the maladjusted website.

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