How drama can help mental health

I recently shared an interesting article from the Guardian entitled, ‘'Drama saved my life': how performing can help mental health problems.’ 

It received 26 likes/loves on Facebook and 80 shares. So, this to me shows just how important finding ways of supporting mental health is to so many of us. The article was written in 2018, but it still has great relevance today.

Mental Health isn’t a taboo topic anymore. We’re starting to talk about it and our challenges more openly and honestly. It helps that there are great plays and musicals based upon mental health, including the most recent award-winning ‘Dear Evan Hansen’; that highlight the issues that some people face. 

Theatre provides a fantastic stage to educate people and raise awareness of mental illness, but it also gives an invaluable platform to those who have mental health issues.

There are many different support options and opportunities available to us today, from counselling to more immersive art experiences such as music therapy, painting and theatre. It has been said that professionals find drama and acting provide more value than any other art forms. 

Theatre company ‘May Contain Nuts’, featured in the article, was set up by a drama therapist. It was a relief to many individuals when their therapy sessions came to an end. One performer says: “When you get to the end of the prescribed period, that’s it. Off you go. There’s no discussion or follow on. There’s no safety net and you get left to fend for yourself.”

This group helps individuals with their recovery by giving them the support they need, which is vital for people with mental health issues. Sadly, drama therapy is a route still underused by the NHS.

As well as having many years of experience within theatre, some of you may know that I am very interested in mental health, and in 2018 I qualified as a psychotherapeutic counsellor after three years of training. I now work for Mind and YiS (Young People’s Mental Health) part time and I have a private practice. 

I have seen first-hand how drama and theatre impacts positively on an individual with mental health issues. I have seen how people with anxiety and very low self-esteem have been transformed by drama. From being unable to go out by themselves they have blossomed into confident individuals. Maybe it’s because in drama you can become someone else. You can pretend you are playing a confident film star if you want to!

I once had someone who self-harmed come to my workshops. She was so absorbed in the rehearsals as they progressed that she just didn’t think about self-harming. She was too busy concentrating on doing a great performance. It was so good that the local press in their review picked her out as outstanding. She later wrote to me after the project finished and said that drama had saved her life.

I also taught in a maximum-security prison some years ago. One of the prisoners told me he lived for the weekly drama class. He went off and wrote a play which won an award. He had been involved in various bank robberies and had a very sharp mind for strategy and organising heists. He had become very depressed in prison and couldn’t see a way forward. With drama he turned his skills to a more positive use. It may sound odd, but he realised he had transferrable skills. Since leaving prison he has become a successful theatre practitioner!

Drama enables individuals who may feel isolated or have low self-esteem to come together in a group to share their story, connect with others on a personal level, build great relationships and gain a sense of community. They can do this all in a safe, supportive and non-judgemental environment.

Theatre is all about trying new things, telling stories, being creative and playing different roles. It gives people the chance to leave their everyday life and experience being someone else instead.

Acting is all about having fun and playing, which is crucial for our mental health as it increases positive mood and well-being and reduces feelings of anxiety.

Drama also provides a fantastic opportunity to let individuals express themselves through dancing, singing, shouting - however they want, which in turn leads to a boost in empowerment and self-confidence. All the skills they learn through drama, along with the increase in confidence and knowledge, can be transferred into everyday life. In the long term this can help people feel accepted and valued, enhancing their quality of life. 

The arts and theatre can create so many positives for individuals which can turn their lives around for the better. More needs to be done to keep these lifelines accessible to those that need them.

Have you taken part in drama workshops, been in a play or experienced drama therapy? What was your experience?

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