Far from being just an enjoyable pastime, drama is a powerful therapy for those people affected by mental health problems. The medium can also be used as an important tool to raise awareness about mental illness.

Charity, Education and Therapy: The Many Uses of Drama

This August, Melbourne Uni Law Revue's Performance Enhanced will be raising money for SANE Australia – a charity whose work supports those coping with mental illness. But it's not just by raising money that drama can help others. Across all mediums, the arts are rapidly becoming widely recognised as an effective form of treatment and therapy for people who are suffering from mental health problems. Whether it is addiction, depression, bipolar disorder or other issues, therapists have found arts therapies to be very beneficial.
The role that drama plays in relation to mental health is twofold; not only is it used in treatment and therapy, but also as a tool to educate adults and young people about mental health issues. The benefits that this particular medium can bring are vast, and it is no wonder that organisations across the world are using it to great effect.

Educating adults

Anxiety and depression charity, beyondblue, use role play in their workshops to educate companies about mental illness in the workplace. Just like in an ordinary drama exercise, the role play exercise ensures that each person has to carefully consider how they would talk to a colleague they had concerns about, or how they might respond in certain situations. It also allows for greater communication between colleagues and acts as a teambuilding exercise as well, allowing everyone to become more comfortable talking about significant issues such as mental health. The charity recently released another online video in its series: Having a conversation: Discussing mental health in the workplace. The videos were created as a useful and educative resource to suggest how employees can respond if they are concerned about a colleague.

Educating young people

While the videos from beyondblue are an excellent way to reach a wide audience, the interactive element of drama can be even more effective as a tool in education. The Hunter Institute of Mental Health runs an annual drama competition for Year 11 students in the area called MindPlay.



As well as being a brilliant way to get young people involved with theatre, the competition aims to promote mental health awareness, which could lead to sufferers seeking help sooner rather than later, and will hopefully reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. School groups can enter the competition and are invited to an Audition Round, which then leads onto the Grand Final for the six finalists. There are financial prizes for the top three schools, and this money can then be used for the benefit of the schools' communities. By presenting a fun opportunity for schools to get involved, The Hunter Institute can encourage young people to talk about mental health and to research it further.

Treatment and therapy

In 2012, the Mental Health Foundation ACT's Imperfectly Sane Productions invited people in Canberra to take part in Dramatic Recovery. The participants had all been affected by mental illness, and the project allowed them to use their real life experiences to create a short play.

The project was very interactive, and members of the audience were actively encouraged to become a part of the performance, revealing their reactions to the situation rather than sitting back passively. They were also given the opportunity to re-enact the situation, and to change the ending. No one was forced to participate, but it was an effective way to ensure that the performances left a lasting impact on the audience, and encouraged them to think more about mental illness. As the fourth wall was broken down, so was the barrier that can sometimes prevent people from thinking and talking about mental illness.

One of the key benefits of Dramatic Recovery was that it allowed those who had been affected by mental health to really explore what it was like for them, and to address issues that they may initially have felt uncomfortable talking about. There was no pressure to take part, but by facing their experiences, they could take a step closer to overcoming them.

This benefit of drama for the treatment of mental illness is being employed by organisations worldwide. As well as helping those who are dealing with depression and anxiety, drama and arts therapy can help those coping with other illnesses such as alcohol addiction and substance addiction. Drama therapy can often provide an easier way to express the anxiety, for example, that can be the root cause of an addiction, and it can be more effective and useful than trying to talk to someone in a one-to-one situation. A report from NADTA (the North American Drama Therapy Association) states that "Drama therapy promotes an environment in which addicted clients can openly express emotions, explore a drug-free future, develop communication skills, make personal connections and practice honesty." While the report is referring specifically to the treatment of addiction, many of these benefits can also be applied to the treatment of depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety.

There are endless possibilities for helping others through drama, be it through workshops, one-to-one role play, puppetry, performances or interactive shows, and it is an area that is continuously being explored. The benefits that it can bring are clear, and it is likely that it will be used more and more in the future treatment of mental illness.