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Saving Lives Through Educational Theatre

Karen L Chin is a copywriter for Kaiser Permanente Educational Theatre and an advocate of using the arts to educate. You can follow Kaiser Permanente Educational Theatre on Twitter @KPETNCAL.

Back in 1998, 11-year-old Jessica (name changed) was contemplating suicide and had written a will. Her parents found it and got immediate help for her. Even though her mother says they began “communicating on a regular basis,” a year later, unbeknownst to her mother, Jessica was still thinking about suicide.

Fortunately, Jessica saw a performance of Nightmare on Puberty St. at her middle school. Kaiser Permanente’s Northern California Educational Theatre group had developed the program several years earlier in response to teachers and parents requesting help for middle school students coping with peer pressure, puberty, depression, and thoughts of suicide.

After the performance, Jessica approached Brenda, an Educational Theatre performer and educator, and shared her feelings about suicide. Having been trained to recognize warning signs and how to respond, Brenda took Jessica by the hand and brought her to the school office. She connected her to an adult who could help her.

Jessica says Nightmare on Puberty St. helped to save her life. Her mother wrote to Kaiser Permanente Educational Theatre in February, 2000:

I am so thankful for your program. Without it, my daughter could have struggled so much longer and not sought the help she so obviously needed. This wonderful show has saved the life of a wonderful girl who has every potential to be a wonderful adult … All young teens and their parents should see your program. We all need a reminder of how hard it is to grow up and to know we are not alone.

Help for kids in crisis

Many years have passed since Nightmare on Puberty St. was first shown in middle schools, but the issues and difficulties adolescents experience during puberty still remain. In 2015, 68 middle school students approached a Nightmare on Puberty St. facilitator seeking assistance like the kind Brenda provided for Jessica. In just the first three months of 2016, 43 more students have needed similar assistance. One student commented:

ETP_NM parent photoI think most teens commit suicide because they think no one is there for them, and this play helps you rethink everything. It helps because it lets you know that your parents are there for you as well as other people at the crisis hotline to help you.

The student is referring to the California Youth Crisis Line, 1-800-843-5200. In Nightmare on Puberty St. a character calls the hotline because she is thinking about killing herself. Throughout the assembly, students can see the phone number clearly displayed on the set backdrop, and after the assembly, each student receives a wallet card imprinted with the number.

Do these kids really use the wallet cards or even keep them?

Last month, a teenage brother escorting his younger sister to an Educational Theatre evening event recognized one of the performer/educators from a Nightmare on Puberty St. performance he’d seen three years earlier. He pulled out his wallet card, showed it to the performer/educator and spoke about the positive impact the show and resources had had on his self-esteem and his life in general. And one woman, now a mother, remembers saving her wallet card and giving it to a friend in need over a year later.

For decades suicide has been the second or third leading cause of death in the United States for youth aged 10 to 25 years. Since 2007, when Educational Theatre began tracking data on performer/educator interventions with students, these individuals have connected more than 600 students to counselors, principals, and adults who help to address suicidal thoughts and other high-risk issues requiring immediate attention. One middle school vice principal told Educational Theatre:

I would not have known about this student’s issues had it not been for the assembly … She has never raised any concerns to the adults in her world, so it was wonderful that she felt safe enough to go up to [the theatre facilitator] and talk about her feelings … She will be seeing our counselor on a regular basis.

Even after all these years of touring, Nightmare on Puberty St. continues to resonate with middle schoolers, moving them to reach out and share their personal stories of suicidal thoughts, self-harm, depression and mental health issues, bullying, abuse and domestic and other violence. When they do, the performers/educators are there to listen, to provide support and to continue to save lives.

Visit the Northern California Kaiser Permanente Educational Theatre website for more information about attending a performance of Nightmare on Puberty St. or bringing the program to your school.

If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide

  • Do not leave the person alone
  • Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
  • Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800­273­TALK (8255)
  • Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional
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