How drama can help open up conversations about suicide for young people in the post-pandemic era

According to British charity Young Minds, an organization set up to help children and young people with mental health problems, suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds worldwide.

Many young people have struggled with their mental health during and since the COVID-19 pandemic, which is expected to become a mental health epidemic. Factors such as switching to homeschooling, being physically isolated from friends, and being insecure about easing restrictions have all contributed to poor mental health. But my research has shown that using plays to explore these sensitive issues could be a way to manage the emerging crisis.

Against the background of the pandemic, an increase in suicide attempts and in some cases even suicide attempts by young people is to be expected. Recent research has found that 7% of UK children by the age of 17 have attempted suicide.

Therefore, there is an urgent need for early intervention and prevention strategies to be developed and implemented in schools to reverse the potential increase in suicides among young people.

In 2019, as a Performance Lecturer, I ran a drama research project in schools in South Ayrshire, aiming to change attitudes to talking about suicide. Contrary to popular belief, if there are serious concerns about a person’s safety, mental health charity Mind recommends asking them directly if they are considering suicide.

This project, part of a Public Health Scotland strategy, was called Read Between The Lines and aimed to get that message across to young people in hopes of opening up conversations about suicide. My current research aims to further develop the work done in Read Between The Lines and learn lessons from digital innovations in teaching and learning post COVID-19 restrictions to address mental health issues related to suicide.

The game is the thing

In Read Between The Lines, a short piece was presented to an audience of 11-18 year olds showing the difference speaking can make to keeping young people safe. In the play, a young girl shows signs of suicidal thoughts.

Talking to a friend helps her through her difficulties and eventually turns her back on the idea. Using drama to portray such difficult and sensitive conversations allowed audiences to explore these issues in a safe and supportive space.

Otherwise, without such opportunities to speak freely about issues such as suicide, young people may be drawn to other fictional and sometimes sensationalized depictions of suicide. In 2019, following criticism from mental health organizations, Netflix removed a controversial scene from its 13 Reasons Why series that showed a character taking his own life.

Recognizing the potential vulnerabilities of some young people, Netflix then developed a website offering support for a range of mental and physical well-being issues. Despite these resources, there is a need for more direct local responses to suicide prevention education using both digital and face-to-face approaches.

Building on the Read Between The Lines project, I’m currently exploring ways to leverage digital resources such as those developed by Grassroots Suicide Prevention. This resource, aimed primarily at men, is a good example of how to safely have conversations about suicide.

But using such digital resources is only part of an effective approach; Role-playing with young people can also be a powerful tool to bring about change. For this reason, I believe that theater is one of the best ways to reach young people and help them feel comfortable talking about issues like suicide.

A scene from the Read Between The Lines project.
James Layton, author provided

Drama: inhabiting different worlds

Brazilian theater director and activist Augusto Boal argued that drama can allow for inhabiting two worlds at the same time, which he terms “metaxis,” meaning someone can play a role without getting lost in a character or situation. This allows individuals to explore difficult and challenging scenarios.

For Boal, active participation is a powerful tool to bring about change. Similarly, Dorothy Heathcote’s pioneering theater education work of the 1970s placed children in the role of experts in exploring a range of subjects.

In a 1971 BBC documentary, a child reflecting on one of Heathcote’s sessions commented that she would rather research a drama of her own than a play because ‘a play is not our own words’. Allowing children to re-enact their own (real) world through their own (imagined) drama world is an integral part of Heathcote’s approach and one that helps facilitate dialogue.

Drama can evoke meaningful and productive dialogue about suicide and the mental health issues that accompany it, as both my own and Heathcote’s work demonstrate. Heathcote’s use of dramatic spaces allows for intuitive role-taking, with an equal balance between ‘expert’ and ‘learner’.

In doing so, the lines between experts and learners are blurred, which helps to develop spaces and communities where an appropriate and continuous dialogue actually takes place.

A delicate balance is needed in dealing with sensitive issues such as suicide if this is to help foster a society where young people can talk and listen to one another. The exploratory nature of the drama offers a way to build such an environment and a promising way to navigate a mental health crisis where lives are being needlessly lost.

If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, the following services can support you:

In the UK and Ireland – call Samaritans UK on 116 123.

In the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or IMAlive at 1-800-784-2433.

In Australia – call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

In other countries – Visit IASP or to find a helpline in your country.

About Ellen Lewandowski

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