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Mobilizing knowledge: Addressing youth suicide with performance theatre

Joseph Schoenfelder, PhD Candidate in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts’ Theatre For Youth program, has high stakes riding on the success of his program. Piloting an in-school residency program designed to engage at-risk youth in the dramatic arts toward enhancing protective factors against suicide, Schoenfelder’s research literally is designed to save lives.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among teens aged 15 to 24 in the United States, according to a Center for Disease Control and Prevention study, second only to deaths caused by unintentional accidents. While young women in this age group are statistically less likely to complete suicide, research consistently indicates that they are more likely to ideate and attempt suicide. Male adolescents in this age range are five times more likely to commit suicide than adolescent women.

Meanwhile, research suggests that gender-role nonconformity is the leading unique identifier of suicidal behavior, while sexual orientation is the second; youth of certain racial identities, specifically American Indian and Alaskan Native populations, die by suicide at a disparately higher rate.

“As I became more socially engaged as a teacher and practitioner over the past several years, I was consistently and passionately drawn to studying and working with mental health-related issues,” said Schoenfelder. “Theatre is unique in its variety of available modes of expression, both verbal and non-verbal, and serves as a powerful method of experience and empathy through embodiment.”

From a community perspective, theatre programs have strong potential to raise awareness and help reduce stigma surrounding mental health and suicide. In Schoenfelder’s in-school residency program, youth volunteers in a local group home participated in theatre games, verbal and non-verbal improvisational exercises and journaling activities over an 8- to 10-week program.

Therapists at the group home were welcoming and excited about the project, because of the program’s novel approach and its potential to boost levels of hope in the youth. Unlike traditional youth-therapy treatment work, which requires them to discuss past offenses and traumatic events in detail, up to and including victimization and abuse, Schoenfelder’s curriculum invited participants to artistically explore their identities and reframe goal-related challenges as opportunities for creative thinking and success.

“Theatre is an art form that combines verbal with non-verbal communication such as physical movement, dance, music, silent storytelling, visual art and writing,” Schoenfelder explained, while noting that the program does not rely on treatment plans and therapist-client relationships and is not a therapeutic intervention.

The multiple creative modalities participants explore offers a unique dynamic and perspective to resilience-building among the youth in a space that resembles their reality.

Schoenfelder’s work is already bearing fruit, one teacher reported that after eight weeks, participants acted more confidently when talking about and working toward their goals.

“The results are encouraging,” agreed Schoenfelder. Participants demonstrated increased levels of agency and goal-related motivation and confidence in their goal-attainment. All participants also reported feeling more hopeful at the end of the intervention, and some expressed surprise at their newfound abilities to plan and pursue so many goals. Several participants had improved their ability to revise negative self-talk into positive and had even rehearsed positive actions through improvisation. This pilot project suggests the program has potential to adapt and expand in a multitude of settings.