Theater Breaks The Ice To Talking About Violence

On Tuesday night, actors Kerry Warren, Jackie Chung, and Jeremy Kahn sat in the atrium of the Wilson branch of the New Haven Free Public Library on Washington Avenue, talking about a kid who scared them.

It wasn’t just the menace in his creative writing. It wasn’t that he wasn’t doing well in his classes either. It was that they couldn’t connect to him. They were worried the student might shoot them. Kahn was worried that he might be first.

The three actors were playing out a scene Tuesday night from Julia Cho’s Office Hour, which runs at Long Wharf Theatre from Jan. 17 to Feb. 11. They appeared at the Wilson branch library as part of a collaboration among Long Wharf Theatre, the New Haven Free Public Library, and Sandy Hook Promise to use the play as a launch pad for discussion of the play’s theme: school shootings, and the tangle of issues from gun control to mental health that we seem to play out, again and again, with each tragedy. The event at Wilson was part of a larger program that began with a workshop for educators at Long Wharf on Sunday and continues into February.

At Wilson, the actors performed the scene midway through a panel discussion among Addys Castillo, executive director of City Wide Youth Coalition; Francisco Lopez, a clinical psychologist who works with the Fair Haven Community Health Center; and Kyisha Velazquez, director of clinical and consultation services at Integrated Wellness Group. Karen DuBois-Walton, executive director of New Haven’s housing authority, moderated the discussion.

The panel was there to discuss the stigma surrounding youth and mental health. The question was whether theater could aid in that discussion — or as Elizabeth Nearing, Long Wharf’s community relations manger, put it, “how can theater strategically work in opposition to violence?”

Drawing on their collective decades of experience counseling youth and families, the panelists agreed that a stigma regarding mental health issues certainly exists. “You get a diagnosis of cancer, and your house gets flooded with support,” Lopez said. “You get a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and everyone runs away.” Sometimes parents are even blamed for the mental health issues of their children.

But young people “challenge and redefine things that we take for granted,” DuBois-Walton countered. Have they done so with mental health? The answer was complicated.

“For young people who don’t know what it is, it becomes taboo,” Castillo said. Once a kid is diagnosed, however, they can become “saturated with services … they are talked to like a client every step of the way.” Teachers and family might start treating them differently. Some kids can become “very resilient” as a result. Others turn to “drinking and promiscuity.” But youth with support can learn to “advocate for themselves more effectively than some young adults.”

But diagnosis — and, more important, figuring out whether a person poses a threat to themselves and others — is often elusive. “Depression sometimes manifests as anger,” Velazquez said. But anger doesn’t always mean that someone will cause harm. She found herself more concerned with “those who want to isolate themselves from their peers … the ones who withdraw into themselves.”

Anger, isolation, depression, sleeping a lot — these were also the marks of normal adolescence, the panel agreed. “The key is if there’s a change,” Lopez said, a sudden shift in behavior.

DuBois-Walton then asked what message parents weren’t hearing, in the panelists’ experience.

Brian Slattery Photo“Pressure,” Castillo said. “I can’t remember young people ever being so stressed.” Particularly kids struggling with their sexual identity, and particularly if they had to contend with beliefs at home holding that LGBTQ sexual identities were immoral. “A lot of people identify as pansexual,” Castillo said. “I’m confused, but they’re not — they’re like, ‘you got to get with the program.”

Racism, especially structural racism, loomed large for the panelists as well. “There is always a consciousness of being a person of color,” Lopez said. The message from greater society — that black and Latino kids aren’t as smart, that they live in bad neighborhoods and go to bad schools — can be hard to ignore. And if that message is internalized young, it’s that much harder to deal with as an adult. It can create a sense of hopelessness. Lopez summed up the mindset: “Why should I try to be anybody if nobody expects me to be?”

Castillo found that some teachers “don’t have a freaking clue” about systemic racism, and thus inadvertently contribute to it. She found racial bias in case assessments when she worked at the Department of Children and Families, too. When it came to government and social services, “I can’t get past who’s doing the serving,” she said. “If we see a child drowning in the river, we jump in, we form human chains. But nobody goes to the top of the stream to find out who’s throwing the kids in the river.”

What was helping to change that dynamic, DuBois-Walton asked.

Here Lopez turned to the audience of about 20 who had gathered for the discussion. “Do you think therapy works?” he said.

“It does!” one audience member said.

“It depends,” said another.

One audience member talked about how articles about mental health often end with something like the labels on medicine—“for more information, consult a mental health professional.”

“If you happen to be the parent of a child who has mental health issues, the period” at the end of the sentence “is just the start of a new chapter — a story that we hear a lot less about.”

Lopez agreed. “We don’t do a good job of showing what works,” he said.

At that point, actors Chung, Kahn, and Warren performed their scene, their fears about the fictional student — and what he might be capable of — plain on their faces and in their voices. The audience applauded. And something changed in the conversation that followed. It became a little less theoretical, a little more personal. It felt less like the panelists were talking about mental health issues, and more like they were talking about people.

DuBois-Walton asked the audience members for their thoughts.

One woman was struck by the way the teachers talked about the student without just talking to the student. “It’s way too hard for people to say, ‘hey, I’m worried about you, I care about you,’” she said. “And that’s scary in itself.”

Lopez followed up on that. “How do I deal with a kid who’s really depressed in my class?” he said. “If I don’t, what does that say about me?”

In her own work, Velazquez saw that “fear was heightened after every school shooting,” beginning with the front doors of the buildings getting locked during the day. All the counselors had noticed a rise in profiling. After Columbine, it was goth kids. After 9/11, it was Muslims. Each event, Lopez said, “just gives us another target for our fear.”

Castillo then related how she was attacked while working in a correctional facility. Afterward, it was hard for her to get over a prejudice, a fear, of teenaged boys. Now she has a 14-year-old son of her own. “I worry about the fact that my son looks 18, and someone’s going to bother him just because they make assumptions about him.”

“It’s urban trauma,” Velazquez said.

“I feel like I need a therapist sometimes!” Castillo said, to understanding laughter. But there was seriousness behind the comment.

Which is when DuBois-Walton returned to the question she had posed before the actors performed their scene from Office Hour: What works?

Lopez had said earlier that “we don’t do a good job of showing what works.” Now he laid out an array of treatments that evidence showed had an effect. If mental health concerns were found at a young age, counseling could really work. “For older kids, man, if you can get them into positive peer mentoring, there’s a lot of evidence for it,” he said. A combination of medication and therapy could help a lot with bipolar disorder and psychoses. Even physical exercise was found to be an antidepressant.

“When you’re looking for a therapist,” he said, “ask: ‘how am I going to know if this is going to work?’”

Velazquez agreed. “We believe we are in collaboration with the client,” she said. She and her colleagues at Integrated Wellness Group were experts on treatment for mental health. But their clients were “experts in their lives.”

“You teach coping first, for relief,” she continued. Coping mechanisms can range from meditation to kickboxing — whatever works best for each person. “Then you get at the root of the problem.” Again, each approach is tailored to each person. “Therapy is not supposed to be more work,” she said. “It has to fit naturally into their day-to-day lives.”

“I am a big fan of group therapy,” Castillo said. In her sessions, there is no hierarchy. Participants sit in a circle and build “conocimiento — community,” she said. “There’s a difference between transactional and transformational, and we want to be transformational.” Castillo also saw it as her job to connect clients to other services they might need from other organizations. Here, she motioned to Lopez, Velazquez, and DuBois-Walton, her colleagues in the mental health community.

Nearing finished by talking about Sandy Hook Promise and the work that organization has been doing around the country. One program, called Say Something, created a way for students to tell teachers and administrators about issues in the school, from loose railings on stairwells to shifts in other students’ behavior. Another effort found students in Miami-Dade County, Fla., starting “promise clubs,” in which students look out for each other more.

“They get really into just saying hi to each other, making sure nobody’s sitting alone at lunch,” she said. “Just saying hi to someone can do so much.”

Long Wharf Theatre’s collaboration with the New Haven Free Public Library about Office Hour continues with a story slam on Jan. 22 at the Ives Main Library and a community conversation on Jan. 31 about community resilience.

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