Live storytelling is an emotionally powerful medium, and one organization in Chicago is using it to get more people to talk about mental health.
“You'll notice, even in the last like five years, billboards on the side of the highway or signs on the side of the bus that say ‘Talk to someone,’ right?" Heather Bodie, executive artistic director at Erasing the Distance, said. "But if you've never placed language to what it is that you're living with, to what it is that's going on in your body, if you have deep seated stigma and shame around what it means to live with a mental health issue or to be going through crisis, you go sit down and talk to someone, but what are you going to say?”
Erasing The Distance is a non-profit arts organization started in 2005 that uses live storytelling to foster community discussions about topics like alcoholism, depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
“The stories are performed by professional actors, but the way it works is that people sit down with us and share their own experiences in one-on-one interview-style setting for anywhere from like an hour and a half to two hours," Bodie said. "We transcribe those interviews and then shape them verbatim text into two page scripts that we hand to those actors.”
The performances are followed by moderated discussions where audiences can talk about their own experiences and the ways they related to the stories they just heard.
It's not therapy, though Bodie says it can feel therapeutic. Most importantly, it gives audiences the opportunity to learn how to talk about mental health with others.
“If we can’t talk about it, we can’t take advantage of the resources that can lead to potential healing," Bodie said. "So, storytelling helps people understand how to put words to what they live with.”
Beyond their live and virtual storytelling events, Erasing The Distance also works with schools, faith organizations and workplaces to reach different audiences — especially those who are new to discussions about mental health.
“I think that’s our biggest challenge," Bodie said. "A lot of times in our public performances, the people who join the room are here for it, right? I wish, honestly, that more folks who were new to the experience of discussing their mental health showed up to these sorts of things.”
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