Beyond “Raising Awareness”: Theatre for Living presents “maladjusted”

From now until March 24, a much-needed conversation will be taking place at the Firehall Arts Centre. maladjusted, created, workshopped and presented by Theatre for Living (formerly Headlines Theatre), explores the challenges facing our mental healthcare system through a “forum theatre” event.

Micheala Hiltergerke and Pierre Leichner. Photo credit: David Cooper

Micheala Hiltergerke and Pierre Leichner. Photo credit: David Cooper

In the wake of recent tragedies, much lip service has been paid to “removing the stigma” of mental illness and ensuring that people suffering from mental illness or emotional distress are able to access the help they need. Unfortunately, with many of us, our involvement stops there. What we don’t realize, and what maladjusted exposes so well, is that getting people into the mental healthcare system is not enough–what do we do with them once they’re there? Is our current system, increasingly mechanized in the name of “efficiency”, sufficient to ensure our most vulnerable citizens receive care that is compassionate, sensitive to their needs, and actually healthy for them?

The answer, according to the many generous patients and mental health caregivers that comprised the show’s workshop participants, is a resounding no. The failure of an overburdened and increasingly impersonal system to properly diagnose and treat people with mental health issues is contributing to the escalation of already urgent situations. The first half hour of maladjusted is a play (in the traditional sense) that provides logical examples of the ways in which these shortcomings play out for patients, families, and caregivers in a system like ours.

But this would be nothing new. We are used to theatre that exposes. We are used to theatre that points a finger and says, “This. This is a problem.” And we are all used to theatre, films, art, and events that “raise awareness”. Theatre for Living takes this process further, beyond the pointing of the finger and the raising of the awareness. They say, “This. This is a problem. Now what would YOU do about it?” And most importantly, they let us answer.

It’s hard for me to describe just how the forum theatre format allowed me to participate in a discussion about mental health and human-centred care (you’ll have to experience it for yourself), except to say that my own understanding of the issues was heightened, my ability to empathize was increased, and I felt that my role in the evening was empowered. Instead of passive audience members, we became actors in our own right (some on the stage, and some within the human transactions and interactions we’ll be having in our own lives).

Central to the empowerment provided by this important conversation is the creation of a Community Action Report. As different issues are addressed during the forum portion of the evening, the audience is asked to suggest specific policy changes that could help patients, caregivers, and families better navigate the mental health system in a way that works for them, rather than for efficiency or budget figures. Each night, the show’s Community Scribe takes down the ideas put forth. According to the company,

“Theatre for Living has written agreements from various mental health organizations including The Mental Health Commission of Canada and The Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health to use the  maladjusted project and the resulting Community Action Report to inform their policy development.”

By attending the show as an audience member, you contribute to this necessary conversation. I left the Firehall that night feeling, somehow, that I had done a good and necessary thing. I didn’t feel powerless against the huge issue I’d been presented, though I had a better appreciation of the challenges and the stakes.

maladjusted runs at the Firehall Arts Centre, Tuesday to Sunday at 8pm, from now until March 24. Tickets can be purchased online through the project webpage.

Disclosure: My ticket to maladjusted was provided by Theatre for Living. The content of my review remains my own.

Invisible Suffering (and what we can do)

Van Gogh’s Room at Arles

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), “approximately 1 out of 4 people know someone who died by suicide.”, which is a frighteningly high number of people confronted with shock and grief at the sudden loss of their friend or loved one. This post is an acknowledgment not only of the distress experienced by those who attempt or complete suicide, but also of the incredible loss experienced by those left behind.

I have been so fortunate in my life that I am able to say, and believe, that the world is a beautiful place and that life holds glorious things. But the sad truth of the matter is that the world is also full of pain, and for many people (more people than you’d think), the weight they have been forced to carry (by tragic events, an illness, etc.) is more than they can bear. Do not mistake this for weakness, selfishness, or ingratitude. This is simply suffering. Regardless of where it is found–in an old person, in a young person, beneath a tough exterior or behind a smile, it is suffering.

An important tenet of most (if not all) systems of ethics and morality is that people should, if possible, attempt to alleviate the suffering of others. This tenet does not extend only to those who are physically and financially suffering, but to those who may be suffering mental and/or emotional illness and distress as well. Unfortunately, unlike visible suffering such as physical illness or poverty, mental and emotional distress is often invisible–a secret pain closely guarded by the sufferer.

Unlike with visible suffering, there is no obvious solution—if we saw someone bleeding we would give them a Band-Aid. If a friend was ill we’d cook for them or offer to watch their kids for a while. But if someone is in mental or emotional pain, we seem to clam up, unsure of how to help, or if we should. If the sufferer doesn’t tell us they’re in pain, we often don’t even realize there is a problem in the first place.

When I say that it is our responsibility to try to alleviate suffering, I am not by any means condemning those who were not able to prevent the attempted or completed suicide of a friend or loved one. In any tragedy, several complicated factors are at play and seeking to lay blame with those who are left behind will only further stigmatize issues surrounding mental health and suicide.

So what can we do to help someone, especially if we don’t always know who is in need of our help? First and foremost, I believe we should remove once and for all the stigma surrounding suicide. In recent years, several brave families have decided not to hide the cause of their loved one’s death and have brought mental health and suicide into our consciousness (in the media, in our communities, etc.).  Suicide is not an attention-seeking dramatic act perpetrated only by “crazy” people.  It is a desperate act committed (and attempted) by human beings of various ages, lifestyles, backgrounds, and cultures. What these people have in common is that they are in pain. The more we acknowledge that this pain exists, the less we try to sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t happen, the more likely it is that those experiencing this pain will share their troubles with someone and seek help and support. Knowledge is power, and the more we know about suicide and mental health, and about what those around us are going through, the more we can help each other or ourselves.

To that end, I have come across some links which may be helpful:

If you are concerned that someone you know may be considering suicide, the CMHA’s website has a very informative page on suicide prevention. According to the CMHA, “There is almost no risk that raising the topic with someone who is not considering suicide will prompt him/her to do it.” so even if you’re wrong about a person’s intentions, it can’t hurt to talk about your concerns and let them know that you care about what happens to them.

In addition to the information above, on their “Media Guidelines” page, the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention (CASP) asks that the following information be included when someone (like me) is writing about suicide:

Warning Signs of Suicide

  • Suicide threats
  • Statements revealing a desire to die
  • Previous suicide attempts
  • Sudden changes in behaviour (withdrawal, apathy, moodiness)
  • Depression (crying, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, hopelessness)
  • Final arrangements (such as giving away personal possessions)

What to Do

  • Discuss it openly and frankly
  • Show interest and support
  • Get professional help
  • Call your local Crisis/Distress Line

If you are considering suicide, please know that help and support are available. To locate a crisis centre nearest you, please visit the “Find a Crisis Centre” page on the CASP website ( To give you an idea of how important your life is, on CASP’s website there are 27 different organizations listing Crisis Lines in the province of BC alone. I urge you to reach out to one of these resources and/or a loved one.

Unfortunately, even with our best intentions, we cannot always prevent tragedy. For the survivors of suicide (i.e. those left behind), CASP provides information for those trying to cope with grief after a suicide. Their site also provides information and resources for helping you find Survivor Support. Like the crisis centres mentioned above, you can find these resources listed by province.

As with the suffering of those who attempt or complete suicide, it is important to remember that the survivors of suicide are suffering as well. If your friend or loved one has become a suicide survivor, the most important thing you can do is listen, without judgement, without “solutions”, and without pushing them to talk.

I wrote this post with the purpose of supporting an environment where anyone, no matter what their reason or background, will feel safe reaching out and seeking help for what they are going through. Sometimes this means seeking professional help and there is nothing shameful about this. Yes, the world may be full of a lot of pain but it is also full of people who want to help lighten the load, and professionals who have the tools to do so.

I am aware that Mental Health Week is in about a month’s time (May 7-13) but this post couldn’t wait–every week is the right week to try to alleviate any suffering you find, whether the suffering is your own or that of a friend.

Disclaimer – This post is technically an opinion piece, a result of my desire to minimize harm using the tools I have available to me (which include this blog). The information I have provided appeared on either the Canadian Mental Health Association or the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention’s website at the time of posting. I am not a mental health professional, and the content of this post is not a substitute for the assistance of a mental health professional.