Veterans Mental Health Stories Brought to Life through Artistic Stage Production

erasing-the-distance-logo-1This is the fourth in our series honoring Veterans during the month of November. In this post, we explore the innovative work being done by the theatrical troupe Erasing the Distance. Founded by Brighid O’Shaoughnessy the current production running in Chicago, brings voices to Veterans living with mental health conditions that were brought on while serving our country in the wars and conflicts of the last 50 years.

Raising the Curtain on Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome

Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) is a major mental health concern for our country’s Veterans and their families. According to the National Center for PTSD, PTSD occurs in approximately:

  • 11-20% of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom) Veterans
  • 10% of Gulf War (Desert Storm) Veterans
  • 30% of Vietnam Veterans

One organization in Chicago, IL is not only raising awareness about the condition, but providing inspiration and hope for Veterans and their families through an artistic portrayal of their stories. Veterans’ Voices is the latest endeavor from Erasing the Distance, a non-profit arts organization that defuses the effects of stigma through education and dialogue all wrapped up in a theatrical production.

Passion would be an understatement to describe the energy Brighid O’Shaughnessy brings to the organization she founded in 2005. To date, performances that relate individual, unique stories of people living with a mental health condition or a family member have been seen by over 40,000 people. Performances are grouped by themes. Topics covered in the past include stories of young women, such as the production titled Good Enough or Small Dark Room which focuses on Americans of Asian and Middle Eastern descent.

Dedication to bringing each story to life is what drives the quality of these performances. Actors, directors and the individuals being portrayed collaborate together. The people being depicted commit to working with the actors and directors allowing them to truly “get under their skin” to accurately portray their story.

The Veterans’ Voices performances will run for six performances at the Filament Theater in Chicago and tell the story of four Veterans and one family member.

Two segments represent the 400,000 Veterans serving after 9/11 who live with PTSD:

  • Ashley who comes back punching holes in walls and driving her motorcycle recklessly before realizing something is wrong
  • Vanessa who shares the pain of watching her brother experience untreated PTSD after three tours of duty in Afghanistan

Similarly, Vietnam Veterans report experiencing recent PTSD symptoms 20-25 years after their tours. These stories are reflected by:

  • Paul, a Vietnam Veteran who builds a successful corporate career before his PTSD gets the better of him
  • David who struggles with loss for almost 40 years before he finds the right therapist to lead him into wellness

With estimates that about 500 men and women in the military were sexually assaulted each week during 2012,

  • Nicole’s story of the after-effects of her traumas in the military needs to be heard

Each performance is followed by an audience open mic. This audience participation can be very healing for people viewing the performance. Many people have commented in the past that they felt as though they were watching their own story unfold right before their eyes on stage. Being able to engage with the actors, ask personal questions and share a little bit of their own story helps people release and recognize what they have just experienced.

The performances were created in collaboration with students attending the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. A retired officer and commander, Dr. Grady Garner, Ph.D. also provides mental health training to every performer.

Your Turn

  • Have you shared your experience of PTSD with others?
  • What has been their reaction?
  • Do you think the Veteran’s Affairs hospitals and centers are doing enough to support Veterans living with PTSD?

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