Is youth theatre the solution for stressed-out teens?

Post-pandemic, the number of young people with mental health conditions has soared. We ask whether role play and fantasy could be the answer

“I started in youth theatre after my mum referred me against my will,” jokes Subira Damali. “I didn’t know what I was getting into. I was quite an insecure kid, not confident. I didn’t really like socialising or talking to people because I was very, very quiet,” she says. It turned out that her mother’s idea was a good one. “It was a way for me to explore myself more. It built up my confidence, helping me get to know myself. It helped me see through my trauma.”

Young people today have experienced more traumatic and stressful life events at their age than most. According to studies from the number of young people aged between 0-18 years old that were referred to mental health services has been increasing. Between 2020 and 2021 this number increased by 134% to 190,271 as the impact of the pandemic on the young was felt. Further studies conclude that mental health distress is particularly high for young people living in inner city areas such as the EastLondonLines boroughs. So could youth theatre be part of the solution?  

Damali and Nathan Chettry from Lewisham Youth Theatre (LYT), and Beccy Allen from The Half Moon Theatre Company in Tower Hamlets are convinced that it is. Like Damali, Chettry started out as stressed theatre students themselves, and Allen has found supporting young people to be the most rewarding part of her long theatre career. All three are now passionate advocates for the healing power of the arts. 

‘I didn’t ever think it was possible to find a place that would understand me so well’

-Nathan Chettry

Damali, who lives with her young daughter in Lewisham, is now the Progression Coordinator for LYT. In this role she runs projects for training young people to run drama activities to increase mental wellbeing. She does this for the theatre, having dedicated her life to the arts and this community after it saw her through the most stressful time of her life. 

When Damali was just 18 her plans of going to university were derailed as she discovered she was pregnant. She describes this as a very low point in her life and yet the youth theatre was there for her. “It was a nice place to just come and be, and not have any expectations for yourself,” she says. “I was facing a lot of issues, and I felt like I could confide in them.” She attributes the creative director Helen Stanley and the community she built there for getting her through this time. They built her confidence back to a point where she could retrain and find new, exciting career opportunities. Through this coaching, and the skills she had developed over her many years with the theatre, Damali was able to successfully apply for a job in her own theatre company, a fact she never thought she could achieve before. 

“I can honestly say, I don’t know where I would be without the help and support of LYT and the arts. Because life happens. And sometimes it’s hard to navigate your way through it if you don’t have a solid foundation. Art was that for me,” Damali reflects. 

Beccy Allen, 39, has helped to run the Half Moon Theatre Company in Tower Hamlets for over 11 years now. She too has witnessed the impact stress has on young people, and the way theatre can help them. “I think we all know there is a mental health crisis,” she says. “And I think young people are acutely feeling a lot of that crisis.” Allen believes anxiety, speech communication needs, special educational needs and stress in children are all on the rise, and she suspects that online learning in the pandemic is a major culprit. By missing out on socialising in such crucial developmental years, children’s confidence and abilities to communicate suffer, she says. Studies have found students struggle with not only their concentration capabilities but also their self-worth due to online classes.  

However, Allen has seen directly how theatre and play resolves this stress. She reflects fondly on a young girl who left the theatre to join a football club instead. Allen was sad she was leaving but the girl told reassured her. “She said: ‘Oh no, don’t be upset Beccy! I didn’t think I could do it until I came here’,” Allen remembers with a smile. “The benefits of theatre allow children to maintain a higher self-esteem and confidence that carries across to all areas of their lives,” says Allen. She recounts another story of a child who was selectively mute when they started at The Half Moon, but today they are one of the loudest in their class. 

“Drama, and specifically role play, enables children to explore some of the things they are finding difficult about the world or relationships,” says Allen. “It gives them the opportunity to put themselves in other people’s shoes, to articulate and explore through their bodies or through stories, things that they are finding it hard to talk about in their own lives.” 

Nathan Chettry had a similar experience with LYT. Nathan, who uses the pronouns he/they, was referred there aged 17 by the council after having issues with their identity and loneliness. “I didn’t ever think it was possible to find a place that would understand me so well,” he says. “Because, up until that point, I’d been navigating through stuff practically alone.”  

As young people enter those teen years the causes of stress evolve, commonly focusing on those age-old questions: ’Who am I?’ and ‘What am I going to do with my life?’.  

Chettry refers to “Step-up Life Skills”, a project LYT offers that they found particularly helpful, saying “It’s using drama and the arts to try and help you navigate through real life situations. Like, for example, how to handle job interviews and certain social interactions that you might not know how to deal with.” This is done through mock scenarios and roleplay, but also both youth theatres impress upon the idea of listening to their young people, hearing their stresses or interests, and basing class work around that. 

Now in the facilitator’s position themselves, Damali and Chettry are able to reflect on the effects art and theatre spaces have on today’s stressed youth. “We see people that come in, and they’re almost like mirror images of ourselves,” says Chettry. “They’re at a similar point in their life where they feel like there’s nowhere else they can go, or that they’re just completely misunderstood,” he says. “This may be the last resort to try something out. That’s what we’re going to offer them, we’re going to offer them that space to do what they desire and express what’s really on their mind.” 

The Half Moon Theatre offers theatre groups for children aged 5-25 and specialise in inclusivity for young people of all abilities. More information here. Lewisham Youth Theatre offers expansive workshops and theatre classes for young artists aged 3-24. More information here.    

Main Image by: Training Project. Pic: Lewisham Youth Theatre.

Click here to see the rest of ELL’s articles for this Stress Awareness Month

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