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Tuesday, February 26, 2013
In 2010, the Roanoke Children’s Theatre, some area educators and mental health advocates put their heads together on ways they could raise the issue of bullying among Roanoke Valley schoolchildren. The result was a play, “The Secret Life of Girls,” that was shown to every sixth-grader in the valley.
That initiative ended up listed on the White House’s website as one of many positive programs by communities concerned about their youth. So the locals did it again on another issue for ninth-graders in 2011, underage drinking. That play was titled “Wrecked.”
They’re back this year with another subject that’s even more daunting: teen depression and suicide. The curtain has already risen on performances of “Eric and Elliott,” for 2,500 eighth-grade students in Roanoke, Roanoke County and Salem. Performances for adults begin Thursday.
The playbill lists the story as about hope and healing and the warning signs of depression. Pat Wilhelms, artistic director for the Roanoke Children’s Theatre, described the plot of the one-hour, one-act play as: “A son who commits suicide comes back to help his mother and brother cope.”
Though the topic sounds unbelievably sad, the play by Dwayne Hartford has been lauded in Congress as inspiring and empowering.
“Obviously, these are very heavy topics,” said Hallie Carr, director of guidance for Roanoke city schools. “Our goal is to let students know that feeling sad is not an uncommon experience. But if it interferes with their normal lives in school, outside of school … it could be something serious.”
If you believe this is an insubstantial issue, consider: In the 2012 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a little more than 25 percent of high school students surveyed in Roanoke, Roanoke County, Salem, and Botetourt and Craig counties answered “yes” when asked if they experienced feelings of sadness and hopelessness almost every day.
About one in six high school respondents said they had considered suicide. One in eight reported planning it; one in nine reported attempting suicide; and one in 33 said they had sought treatment for a suicide attempt. The numbers vary slightly for middle school students but are generally similar.
The survey is a national one that comes from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. It’s been administered to area high school students since 2002 and middle schoolers since 2006. Researchers at Virginia Tech and Radford University evaluate the results.
“Eric and Elliott” features five characters. Three are youths; two are adults. For one of the adult actors, the show is extra-personal.
Barry Bedwell works for Roanoke County schools and has acted in commercials and many regional theater productions. Five years ago, his daughter Hannah, then a student at William Byrd High School, took her own life. By then, she’d been in treatment for depression for months.
The purpose of the play is to create “an awareness of this dilemma, this epidemic if you will, that’s sweeping this area,” he said.
The school performances are no cost to students; Roanoke and Roanoke County schools, for example, are paying half the cost of the tickets ($3,500 from each, Wilhelm said). The rest is covered by contributions by various organizations: Foundation for Roanoke Valley, LewisGale Medical Center, Freedom First Credit Union and Hall Community Services, among them.
Other partners providing resources are the Roanoke County Prevention Council, Roanoke Area Youth Substance Abuse Coalition, Carilion Clinic and Mental Health America.
A key part of the student performances is a discussion with school counselors, mental health professionals and other adults that immediately follows the play.
“We want to let students know that there’s help available if they’re dealing with these types of feelings,” Carr said.
Bedwell said the “after” discussion at performances last week started rather slowly but quickly picked up steam as students began speaking up.
If past efforts are any sort of guide, one result will be identifying and treating cases of teen depression that might otherwise have stayed hidden.
The number of middle and high school students who’ve reported bullying have increased since “The Secret Life of Girls” played to sixth-graders in 2010. Since “Wrecked” played in 2011, the number of middle and high school students who reported using alcohol within the past 30 days has dropped slightly.
Teen depression and suicide are more serious than those.
“It’s 2013,” said Nancy Hans, director of the Roanoke County Prevention Council. “We’ve got to talk about this stuff. That’s how we can get the resources and help to the right people.”
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