Bulletproof is a verbatim play I've been working on for Replay
, a theatre company in Belfast. It's about mental health in teenagers, and is made up from the words of a number of young people I met there. I thought it might be worth sharing here the notes I've written to introduce the play.
Notes on Bulletproof
One problem of promoting mental health in the young is that the phrase itself, 'mental health', has come to have negative associations. I sat with Caroline McCreight in New Lodge Youth Centre as she asked a succession of young people what words came to their minds when they heard the phrase 'mental health'. They said 'crazy', 'psycho', 'mad', 'need locking up'. And so it's common to hear people who want to promote good mental health stress that they are coming from the perspective of mental health as being a positive thing, wanting to get away from the discussion of mental health being always about mental illness.
I understand that desire completely - but I still think we need to talk about mental illness a lot more than we do.
Between January 2007 and December 2008 twenty-four young people from Bridgend, the county I grew up in, committed suicide.
As teenagers, my friends and I would talk about Bridgend as if it were the worst place in the world, a dreary hellhole from which we couldn't wait to escape. The reality is that Bridgend is not much different to any other small town. Some people are doing very well there, most people are doing alright, and some people – particularly in the villages outside Bridgend town itself – are living in severe deprivation. But again, this picture isn't anything out of the ordinary. We live in an unequal society, and pockets of wealth and deprivation exist alongside each other in towns and cities all over the UK. So why were young people in Bridgend killing themselves?
Early speculation blamed a suicide pact between the young people – but that turned out to be no more than speculation. The newspapers blamed the internet for spreading the suicide craze, and then everyone blamed the newspapers for whipping up hysteria. For a long time I wondered whether I should write anything about what was going on in my home town, afraid that to write about the problem might make things worse – that all this discussion of suicide was simply putting the idea in the kids' heads. But I've spent time since then talking to people like Darren, the director of Samaritans in Bridgend (whose volunteers are on the streets every weekend, where you can't help but bump into them and their big green van) and Paul, regional representative for Samaritans in Wales, about suicide clusters. These conversations have persuaded me that discussion of suicide isn't the problem. People in despair are led to think that suicide is a possible solution not because of talk about suicide - but because of the reality of someone within their community having committed suicide.
People take their own lives because they are stuck in situations they can't cope with, or because they are overwhelmed by feelings they can't bear, and they can see no other way out. It's very hard to talk about feeling so desperate: you worry that you'll look weak, you worry that you'll look stupid. Very often you worry about person you are telling, because if they are someone that cares about you, it will probably break their heart to know you feel so awful you'd rather be dead. And so the worse you feel, the harder it becomes to ask for help. You spiral downwards, becoming lonelier, more isolated, more desperate: until finally, taking your own life starts to seem like maybe not a good option, but perhaps the only option you have. And if someone in your school, or your street, or your town has committed suicide, and you've seen the funeral, the night out in their memory, all the glowing tributes in the paper and on Facebook – that tells you suicide is allowed. It's alright. It's what the kids do, around here.
We can intervene in this process. From an early age, children learn that it's perfectly normal to be physically ill from time to time – and that when we are ill, we get help. We need to be teaching children and young people the same lesson about mental health. Most people are mentally healthy, most of the time: but all of us will have some experience of poor mental health, either ourselves or in our loved ones. And when we're ill, we get help. Young people need to understand that feelings of sadness, or despair - even suicidal feelings – are nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to be frightened of, and nothing to hide. They are horrible feelings – but they pass.