TO for Mental Health

In a sense, all TO workshops are about mental well being.

However, on a few occasions in the last 10 years, we have been invited to conduct workshops that address some specific mental health issues such as the difficulty of starting conversations around mental health in family and institutional spaces, the challenges of accessing mental healthcare, the struggle of the caregiver, stigma, etc.

Some of these have been short workshops focussed on creating Forum performances, while others have been collaborations for a period of 2-3 weeks or even months, with project goals including training and research, in addition to Forum performances.

In Theatre of the Oppressed, we take care to place mental health struggles in their community, social and political context, and not see it as simply psychological or individual.

Our very first Forum project on a mental health issue arose out of our regular workshops with a group of senior citizens associated with the Rotary Club of Bangalore Cantonment. The play told the story of a family that was struggling with the challenges of looking after a person with dementia. Titled There’s Nothing Wrong with my Mother! , the play highlighted the complex intersecting of gender, class, social pressures, and urban isolation as families face the stresses of a mental health crisis. We did 3 shows of this play, and most recently, presented it at the International Symposium on Dementia organised by ARDSI and Nightingale’s Medical Trust (NMT). For this show, I worked with actors from the NMT Active Ageing Centre, RTNagar.

Healing Minds was a 3 week long Forum project in September 2014, in collaboration with the Oxford University Dramatics Society, Public Health Foundation of India and Sangath, Goa. The participants were 6 students from Oxford, and 5 actors from India ( theatre students from NSD, Tripura). The project aimed at providing the participants training in Forum Theatre as well as the experience of conducting dialogues around mental health in diverse communities. Radha conducted a 5 day workshop at the end of which the actors created a play on maternal mental health. 'Megha's Story' did 12 shows in Goa and Delhi, in different communities- schools, colleges, slum communities, Medical Colleges, the Goa Reserve Police , and the final one for an audience of mental health professionals in Delhi. It was surprising and highly encouraging to see these diverse audiences respond sensitively to the issues highlighed in the play. Last year, we worked with a new set of actors, and presented 'Megha’s Story' at The Marcee Society, International Conference on perinatal mental health, at NIMHANS.

The collaboration with Dr Roxana Willis of the University of Oxford was revived two years later, in 2017. CCDC was invited to offer Forum Theatre training for a group of students from the University , and also conduct workshops for two groups of school children. The project, called
Hearing Young Voices, emphasised the importance of acknowledging the mental health needs of young people. One of our audience members rued the fact that while young people's mental health struggles was a widely prevalent issue at the University, our Forum was the first public discussion on the subject.

The collaboration with PHFI was also revived a year later, when we were invited to train a group of youth from Delhi-based NGOs in the use of Forum Theatre for mental health work. Since the participants were already working with communities, they were familiar with their struggles, and this helped create forum scripts. CCDC led 3 day trainings spread over 3 months, and supervised the facilitation of two public Forum performances.

Besides these major forum projects, CCDC has conducted forum shows for organisations and institutions on specific themes. Among these was a Forum on depression among students in professional courses, at Designuru, an exhibition organised by Bangalore-based Architecture Colleges, and a Forum on the challenges of starting conversations about mental health in professional spaces, at Lahe Lahe.

Covid 19 and the lockdown have brought attention back to mental well being as being a critical area for attention- whether we’re thinking of school children, teachers, home makers, working women or senior citizens. CCDC offers online workshops that address some of the new challenges that have surfaced in these times, arising from and affecting personal and professional relationships, that have an impact on mental well being.

How do TO workshops address mental well being?

Our workshops always begin with group agreements. These are not rules. The aim is to create a space where people feel free to be themselves. We agree to respect and listen to each other, and to keep what is shared in the workshop confidential. We agree to push our own boundaries a little bit in the workshop, and challenge ourselves, though nothing is compulsory. School children and sometimes even adults identify some of these agreements as their biggest take away from the workshop. We are so used to rules that being allowed to make your own decisions about participation and learning is a new and exciting freedom.

Standing or sitting in a circle and participating in this exercise of creating a safe space is just the beginning of a process of creating community which is the goal of a TO workshop. We all yearn to belong to a community. In urban societies the idea of community is elusive. Much of the mental health struggles we hear of are the result of people feeling disconnected from family, friends, colleagues, or whoever make up their community. TO workshops aid in the well being of individuals and communities by engaging them in a process of connecting with themselves and other people, through fun filled and thought provoking games and exercises.

The games help people relax, laugh, feel energised through discovering the child in themselves, feeling alive and alert. Some of the games and exercises also make us aware of tensions in the body. There are so many experiences that affect us deeply emotionally and which we don’t talk about for several reasons, mostly that these are taboo conversations, or not easy to initiate. These feelings are held in the body. TO exercises help us access this body memory. Many of these feelings come to the surface when the body is put to use.

We pick up the tools to express these feelings in the form of body shapes or Images. The images are not given set interpretations and are allowed to remain a composite of often mixed feelings, difficult to describe in words. Because we work in a nonverbal form, and in a non judgemental environment, the feelings find fuller expression. This is important for mental well being. Mainstream mental healthcare is not flexible enough to accommodate such indefinable feelings and is always eager to define and label.

A unique workshop with Goa Reserve Police!

One of CCDC's most challenging but fruitful workshops was with the Goa Reserve Police. 250 policemen, sitting stiffly in their uniforms, with shiny belt buckles and polished shoes, in a packed room. When we asked if any of them had ever experienced any stress at home or at work, all shook their heads in emphatic denial. No one wished to appear 'weak'. We started "Megha's Story" with lots of trepidation. Powerful performances, dogged perseverence on the part of the facilitator, the undeniable 'truth' of Megha's struggle- maybe all of these together worked the magic. In the photograph here, one of the policeman has replaced Megha's husband, and sitting on the floor close to her, is coaxing her to eat. Explaining his intervention, he spoke about the need for a husband to be sensitive when his wife is struggling with an illness beyond her control.