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A student wearing blue shirt and jeans shows surprise during a performance of a play to raise awareness about mental health.

A student acts in the final of 22 campus performances of Every Brilliant Thing, held at the UNC School of Government. The play follows a child who grows up grappling with a parent’s depression and self-harm.

Taylor Holbrook/PlayMakers Reperatory Company

When Vivienne Benesch, producing artistic director for the professional theater company in residence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, first saw the play Every Brilliant Thing years ago, she was struck by how well it tackled one of the most complex and pressing issues surrounding 21st-century mental health. 

“I was like, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen a play that brings mental health and wellness and specifically areas around [suicidality] to the forefront with so much hope, sensitivity and relatability,’” she says.

The play follows a young child into adulthood as he grapples with his mother’s depression and attempted suicide, coping by listing things that make him happy—hence the title Every Brilliant Thing.

But it wasn’t until after the COVID-19 pandemic forced people around the world into isolation, worsening the existing youth mental health crisis, that Benesch realized how valuable it could be to bring the play to campus. In partnership with other campus departments, the theater company, PlayMakers Repertory Company, staged the one-person, 60-minute play across multiple UNC campuses and in a variety of campus buildings.

The team behind the performances aimed to share the hopeful lessons of the play with the UNC community while simultaneously helping them connect to wellness resources and share their own experiences with mental health in a postshow discussion.

What’s the need: In the most recent Healthy Minds survey, which includes responses from 96,000 U.S. college students collected during the 2021–22 academic year, students reported the highest rates of depression, anxiety and suicidality in the survey’s 15-year history. In North Carolina, suicide is the second leading cause of death for children between the ages 10 and 18, and the third leading cause for those ages 19 to 34. In addition, UNC Chapel Hill and North Carolina State have been in the spotlight for deaths by suicide among their students in recent years.

As suicide rates climb, campuses across the country have sought out creative ways to support their students, even as counseling centers are stretched thin by record-high demand.

It’s not uncommon for universities to do that by presenting students with opportunities to learn about mental health, often in the form of seminars, panels or lectures, says Amy Johnson, vice chancellor of student affairs at Chapel Hill. But art is another way to communicate with students about mental well-being—one that is often underutilized.

“The arts is a channel that we [had] not used to this point to engage in this conversation and to reinforce this culture,” she says. “I think all of us thought, ‘This is going to be a little intimidating, but … what an opportunity to have a conversation and to bring together our community and the arts in a really wonderful way.’”

This isn’t UNC’s only project focused on mental wellness and suicide prevention. Carolina Across 100, a UNC-run program dedicated to community support across the state, and the UNC Suicide Prevention Institute are currently partnering on suicide-prevention efforts throughout North Carolina.

How it works: Though PlayMakers Rep is a professional company, it works closely with Chapel Hill’s Department of Theatre, including its graduate-level acting students. It was those four students who took on the play’s lead role, rotating each performance. Other elements, like set and lights, were sparse, accommodating the different settings where the play took place—in the library, lecture halls and conference rooms with the tables cleared out and chairs arranged into a circle around the makeshift stage.

Jeff Aguiar, director of engagement and education at PlayMakers Rep, says it was important to the team to bring art directly to the students, holding performances in places they already frequented.

“The key questions, I think, across the board in terms of the site visits came down to, what would create the most inviting atmosphere for anybody that engages with this show?” he says.

Though there were concerns about whether the School of Information Systems’ library was large enough for the show, for example, they decided to host a performance there because they felt it was a space that would be welcoming and familiar to students.

The team was also diligent in planning other factors about the performance, such as training actors and other facilitators how to ask if specific audience members were interested in participating in the show, which features numerous audience members in various improvised roles. Postshow talkbacks were facilitated by members of the community that hosted each performance—say, an education faculty or staff member for the show hosted in the School of Education. Clinical professionals were also available to assist with the conversation as needed.

What’s next: The last show of the run concluded on Wednesday, Feb. 21, at the UNC School of Government. But the process isn’t over. Aguiar, who is also a doctoral student studying conflict analysis and resolution studies, focusing on art-based approaches to peace building, is researching the effect that the play had on audience members in partnership with the School of Social Work. The study utilizes the results of surveys attendees filled out before and after the play, asking questions about how the participants feel about people who die by suicide and what problems or issues would prompt them to attend counseling.

Responses are still coming in, and the survey respondents don’t seem to be entirely representative of the show’s audiences, as the median age of respondents is 41. But the preliminary data, he says, is promising.

“We’ve seen significant shifts in negative perceptions and stereotypes of suicidality and also an overall significant reduction in the stigma around conversations” about mental health, he says. “To me, this is the thing that’s actually the innovation within the project is that we do actually have quantitative data that we are gathering to begin to build a statistically significant case.”

Has your institution used the arts to launch additional conversation about mental health? Tell us about it.

If you or someone you know are in crisis or considering suicide and need help, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 9-8-8, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. 

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