Fragments: Talking About Youth Mental Health

As published in Her Canberra

Many people with mental health problems don’t seek help — hardly surprising, given the stigma that still surrounds the issue.

In fact, rather than ask for help, we curate our lives, presenting our best selves online and face-to-face, creating the illusion that we’re all doing just fine.

But we’re not. And it’s time to talk about it.

That’s why I wrote Fragments, a new work being revealed to Canberra audiences this week at The Street Theatre.

Fragments embodies the theme that stress at home, at school and in life is challenging young people beyond their usual coping abilities, leading to a sense of disconnection and, in many cases, despair.

The characters grapple with anxiety and depression, sexual identity, family dysfunction, academic stress and bullying, to name just a few of the common issues facing young people today.

Maura Pierlot. Credit: Hilary Wardhaugh.

Featuring next-gen actors—some of whom are making their professional debut at The Street—the dramatic work moves from a sense of isolation, alienation and disconnection to a place of agency, hope and connectedness.

The work is being programmed for Mental Health Month ACT, whose theme this year is ‘Conversations and Connections.’

We know when to ask if someone’s okay, but what do we do if they insist all is well despite seeming to be out of sorts? Do we ask again, and how often? What is the fine line between well-intentioned intervention and intrusion? Are we being remiss, and when, for not asking? What about young people, who are navigating new terrain, new identities and new relationships?

How do we know when a change of behaviour, a sense of social withdrawal, for example, is normal ‘teen angst’ or something more troublesome? Do we know what to do if someone tells us they’re not okay?

We all need mental health training; the sooner, the better.

A good starting point would be empathy—the ability to imaginatively step into someone else’s shoes, to see ourselves in another person with a sense of openness and understanding—because stigma thrives on fear and judgment.

Cast of Fragments. Credit: Jessica Conway.

In recent years not only have mental health issues among adults and young people increased markedly but so too has smartphone use, though the jury’s still out on whether social media is a cause—or a by-product—of mental health challenges.

Also unclear is whether mental health issues are physical conditions that can be corrected (think: chemical imbalances) or if existential malaise—a lack of meaning and direction in our lives—is the root cause. Perhaps both.

Fragments, however, doesn’t enter into this debate.

The work doesn’t present an exhaustive account of the spectrum of mental health issues from illness to wellness. Nor does it explore the more severe issues that require intensive intervention and treatment or prescribe a clear path or set of solutions.

The aim of Fragments is to spark conversation—for people to connect with the imagined stories, to linger and turn to the person next to them and talk about what they just experienced—now, and in the weeks and months ahead.

Fragments is showing from 23-27 October at The Street Theatre. Book your tickets now at thestreet.org.au/shows/fragments-maura-pierlot.