‘Mental Health Monologues’ to shed light on stigmas involving mental illnesses

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“Like fire licking every single cell of me.”

“It was such a horrible feeling.”

“I hope to live in a world that accepts me.”

“I am rebuilding my life.”

It is the first rehearsal for the performers of UC Berkeley’s “Mental Health Monologues.” The performers — all students — practice in front of each other in small clusters of Evans Hall’s glaring orange swivel chairs. Voices dart from every corner of the room. Those presenting their pieces face away from the center of the room and from one another, their voices and stories detached from those of others around them. But as they speak, an edge of ferocity creeps into all their voices — a determination to speak and be heard.

You Mean More, a student-based mental health awareness group, is responsible for the production of the campus’ first ever “Mental Health Monologues.” The show, which is similar in structure and purpose to “The Vagina Monologues,” was designed by the makers of the UC Berkeley “Mental Health Monologues” as an outlet for students to share individual stories of struggle, success and failure in dealing with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and suicide.

Unlike “The Vagina Monologues”— in which the performance of the original 1994 play by Eve Ensler is often supplemented by original pieces — all of the stories shared at the one-night “Mental Health Monologues” are both written and performed by UC Berkeley students.

“It’s a very open forum, so people can talk about what they want to talk about,” said Meghna Grover, a You Mean More executive board member.

In order for a greater variety of stories and experiences to be shared in the show, the event’s student coordinators accepted written monologue submissions from people who wanted to include a piece but not perform and then opened auditions to performers with their own pieces and performers who wanted to give voice to the written-only submissions.

The result is a series of compositions covering everything from performers’ personal experiences with depression and suicide to ways to help others cope with the challenges of living with a mental health issue. Some performers are former high school speech and debate participants, some are actors and some have never tried public speaking before “Monologues.”

All, however, have chosen to take to the page and take to the stage to convey a life experience that is private but also a collective reality. For those who have both written their piece and plan to perform it in the show, this process required considering what exactly it was they wanted to convey in through their monologue.

For “Monologues” coordinator Madeline Suchard’s piece, it was the comparison of mental illness to something like a cancer. For junior Deepika Dilip, the written monologue acts as a medium through which she can express her daily irritations with managing a mental illness.

“My monologue depicts an individual undergoing depression,” Dilip said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “It was inspired from actual accounts of individuals and my personal journal entries and depicts the frustrations of experiencing a mental illness.”

One thing the show’s planners, participants and stories seem to share is hope — a desire that the “Monologues” will knit together a stronger and more supportive campus community for those suffering from mental illnesses.

A common theme within the pieces is the continued prevalence of a stigma surrounding open discussion of mental health issues. But the form of the monologue is one that “Mental Health Monologue” student coordinator Kirstin Chubb believes can help overcome the silence. To her, monologues are “engaging and create a lot of empathy with the people who are watching.”

For Billal Ahmed, composing and performing his monologue allows him to not only re-evaluate and share his own experiences but also to encourage others to break the stigma by speaking out as well.

“I wanted to participate because people often feel uncomfortable sharing their mental health stories for fear of alienation or judgment,” Ahmed said in an interview with the Daily Cal. “I wanted to take a step forward and do this so others will feel more comfortable sharing their feelings. I want us as a community to thrive, not merely live every day under a shroud of silence and fear.”

The hope for this event and its repetition in future years is that theater and, in the words of “Monologues” participant Rosella Berden, “performance as self-expression” will spur the kinds of discussions and actions that will reduce this trend.

“There’s so many lives we can make better,” Chubb said. “And so many lives we can save.”

The “Mental Health Monologues” will be held Friday at 7 p.m. in 2050 Valley Life Sciences Building. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door. Proceeds benefit the UC Berkeley Suicide Prevention Walk.

Anne Ferguson covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].