One in five youths between the ages of 9 and 17 experiences a diagnosable mental health disorder.
Yet even the most alarming statistics don’t move us to act — to get beyond the denial, intervene early and persevere for evidence-based treatment.
Perhaps that’s because missing from our mental health conversations are the firsthand experiences of teens and adolescents trying to manage their well-being in this increasingly confounding world.
Today I want you to hear some of those voices, local 17- and 18-year-olds in rehearsal for “The Art of Broken Things.” The production takes place at the intersection of two sometimes-overlapping realities that shadow their generation — school lockdowns and the mental health crisis.
These teens are part of Cry Havoc, one of only two youth theater companies in the nation that tackle controversial issues head-on through their own original research and writing.
Watching the cast run through part of the production — their characters offering halting confessionals about their mental well-being and wildly diverse responses to their lockdown — left me in awe about what young people navigate these days.
Even more powerful were the words of the cast members after they left the stage.
Gavin Yi, a graduate of Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, told me he feels stable now but his mental health was “very shaky” earlier in the year.
A self-professed workaholic who crammed early and fanatically to win acceptance into Northwestern University, he was mentally done and realized “I can’t keep living like this.”
For the first time, Yi spoke honestly to his parents about getting help. “Young males especially don’t talk about mental health, and that’s why I’m doing this show, to break that stigma,” he said.
Fellow actor Maggie Brockman once felt a lot of shame around her struggles with mental illness. “This show really targets that, and that it’s OK that you don’t know what’s wrong,” she said. “It will be OK, even if it’s not right now.”
Brockman, a graduate of the University of Texas High School’s online program and now headed to Pace University, showed me the semicolon-and-heart tattoo on her arm — a symbol for solidarity and struggles with depression, suicidal ideation and other mental health issues.
“This tells people that I’m a safe person whom they can talk to,” Brockman said.
Kai Turner, a rising senior at Booker T., senses that the mental well-being of his peers is at an all-time low, especially coming out of the pandemic.
“You see someone in their hoodie bawling their eyes out as they walk down the hallway,” Turner said. “We don’t know what to do with that. No one ever discusses it.”
The counselor’s open door is avoided — as is talking to parents — for fear they will overreact, Turner said.
His perspective changed when a friend’s struggles left him no choice but to connect him with trusted help. The friend is doing much better now and talks almost daily with Turner.
“I wish a lot more young people could be having those discussions,” he said.
Tremaine Jones, a Booker T. graduate bound for the School of Arts Institute of Chicago, hopes audiences leave the show with the resolve to pay more careful attention to each individual in their lives.
“You think, ‘Oh, he’s always happy, he’s fine’ and that could be the one who has the worst of it,” Jones said.
Booker T. graduate Ava McKay also chose this production as an opportunity to root out the stigma around mental illness.
She noted that even her open and accepting parents get nervous when she talks openly about her depression and anxiety.
“Medication is just what helps my brain function the way it needs to,” McKay said. “I hope that this [show] helps normalize things.”
McKay, who will attend the California Institute of the Arts, said it was important to the Cry Havoc team that they write about individuals, not their disorders. “We’re not playing mental illnesses, we are playing people.”
Sadie Redmond, a W.T. White High School graduate who will attend The New School in New York City, also wants the show to be a wakeup call for older generations.
“The most important thing I want people to take home from this show is the reality of the mental health crisis happening everywhere — and older generations really don’t understand or talk about it.”
Booker T. graduate Olivia King worries too many young people believe that because mental illness is such an internal struggle, they must “fix myself by myself.”
King, who will attend Boston University, now knows that strategy won’t work and she hopes the theater production provides tools that help lift that burden.
But the show “doesn’t tie up in a neat little bow because that’s not how life works,” King said. “These are struggles that can last a very long time.”
Assistant stage manager Phoenix Clasby, a rising senior at Coppell High School, agreed. “Nothing is ever cured,” Clasby said. “This show doesn’t sanitize mental illness but points out this is a thing a lot of people are going through.”
The teens focused much of their conversation on the burden they and their peers feel as a generation that didn’t create today’s crises but who now have to figure out the way forward.
They originally included an active shooter on campus as part of the play’s storyline. But they came together after the May 24 school massacre in Uvalde and revised the flashpoint of their production to stop short of actual violence.
While they wanted to be sensitive to the most recent tragedy, the teens told me that gun violence is an accepted, if awful, part of their lives.
“It could happen tomorrow,” Turner said. “It could happen during a school day. It could happen when I’m going to the store.”
When he sees the news of another shooting on his phone, “I just swipe it away. I don’t even click. It’s definitely not good, but I guess it’s our reality.”
The teens also repeatedly used the word desensitized when it comes to gun violence. “It sends some people to the edge and others are just going about their day, just like in the show,” McKay said.
“The horrible part is that those of us living with this as students don’t really have a voice,” King added.
“The Art of Broken Things” production is bittersweet for artistic director Mara Richards Bim, who founded Cry Havoc in 2014, because it’s the last one that the theater company will produce.
(In February, the Dallas Children’s Theater will present “Endlings,” a climate change-themed play that Richards Bim and her team will rework and rewrite from an earlier production preempted by the pandemic.)
Richards Bim, who has a young daughter, said the time is right for her next chapter. “I love Cry Havoc, but I spend more time with other people’s kids than with my own.”
For years, mental illness was the one topic Richards Bim had been too apprehensive to touch. “I worried that despite our best efforts, it might be misunderstood,” she said.
Tegan Henke, Meadows’ vice president of community systems innovation, told me Cry Havoc’s approach is especially important as experts try to share two messages: Mental illness not only can be successfully treated but it can be caught early.
“It’s invaluable to stimulate that conversation, peer to peer among youth and also among families,” she said.
As easy as it would have been to leave Tuesday’s rehearsal grim — beaten down by what our young people face — I felt just the opposite.
These teens have learned not just to support those around them but to check in with their own selves. They recognize that every incident affects each person differently depending on background. And they have wisdom that we all need to hear.
I like how Kai Turner put it: “Never assume anything. Be careful with people. People are really, really fragile.”
Go see their production, which runs July 21-31 at Hamon Hall in the Dallas Arts District. You’ll be smarter and a better human being for having done so.
Tickets are available through dfwticket.com.
Lifelines of support
Here For Texas Mental Health Navigation Line: Grant Halliburton Foundation initiative that connects North Texans with mental-health resources customized to each caller at 972-525-8181, or go to HereForTexas.com.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 24-hour crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255. Confidential online chat is available at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Crisis Text Line: 24-hour support by texting HOME to 741741. More information at crisistextline.org.
North Texas Behavioral Health Authority: 24-hour crisis hotline at 1-866-260-8000 or go to ntbha.org.
Suicide and Crisis Center of North Texas: Speak to a trained counselor on the 24-hour hotline at 214-828-1000 or 800-273-8255 or go to sccenter.org.
Dallas Metrocare Services: For help, call 1-877-283-2121 or go to metrocareservices.org.