News and analysis
December 29, 2014

Mental Health Nonprofit Teams With Theater Group to Tackle Thorny Issue

Photo by Jesse Russell/Courtesy of Erasing the Distance

Turning Point, a nonprofit mental-health treatment facility in Skokie, Ill., teamed up with Erasing the Distance, a Chicago theater group, this month to offer six performances of a play about how clinical depression affects families.

The hour-long play, "Tell Me What You Remember," was based on an actual family’s experience. Actors portrayed Kristin, a 40-year-old woman suffering from depression, her husband, parents, and grandmother.

While the goal of the performances was to reduce the stigma and misperceptions associated with mental illness, it also offered an opportunity for Turning Point to provide meaningful interactions with some of its most loyal donors, says Ann Raney, chief executive of the mental-health group.

The theater group provided free or half-price tickets to about 60 Turning Point donors who give $300 or more annually to the mental health nonprofit. Donors also were invited to a reception. The donors all belong to "Solid Support," a group Turning Point created seven months ago for donors who support its advocacy work to improve mental-health policies and services.

"The reception was used to continue to educate this group and get them interested in bringing others in," says Ms. Raney.

The two nonprofits also worked together in other ways. Turning Point provided wallet-sized handouts to everyone who attended the performances, with information on how to recognize depression. The cards included a list of local mental-health organizations and services such as the "Living Room," a walk-in center where adults in crisis can go instead of a hospital emergency room.

Difficult Roles

Turning Point also made sure that psychologists and other clinicians were on hand for post-performance discussions led by Ms. Raney and Brighid O’Shaughnessy, founder of the theater group. Ranging from 45 to 90 minutes, the discussions allowed members of the audience to ask questions about mental-health issues and organizations, the actors in the play, and their methods—and to speak with one of the clinicians if desired.

As with all its performances, Erasing the Distance used professional actors in the play, which distinguishes it from other theater groups that engage clients of social-service groups in telling their own stories, says Ms. O’Shaughnessy.

"When you have people from marginalized groups performing their own material, there is a patronizing quality among the audience and they are not necessarily seeing themselves on the stage—there is a distance," Ms. O’Shaughnessy says. "If you have professional actors who know how to tell a story, the [viewers] lose themselves in the story" and are more likely to experience empathy.

But, she notes, there is a potential downside for actors portraying a family nearly shattered by deep depression, multiple suicide attempts, incest, and other harrowing events. Because such disturbing content can interfere with actors’ own well-being, Ms. O’Shaughnessy asked Turning Point staff to train the play’s five actors on how yoga, meditation, and deep breathing can help relieve severe stress.

"They helped the actors understand they were dealing with some pretty heavy emotional material," says Ms. O’Shaughnessy. Turning Point staff, she adds, provided "practices the actors could do to prepare themselves to rehearse and perform this content, to shed it and let it go."

Send an e-mail to Holly Hall.