'Manic Monologues' Seeks to Disrupt the Stigma Around Mental Illness

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Stanford student Chloe Harris performs a monologue written by someone who's experienced mental illness as part of "Manic Monologues," a theatre piece exploring 15 different perspectives, not unlike "Vagina Monologues" did with female sexuality in the 1990s.  (Courtesy of Vianno Vo)

In today's enlightened age, polite people would never admit talking about mental illness is taboo. But it is. If you have a psychiatric illness, or someone you love does, you know it’s awkward to talk about. Raise the subject, and people mutter something vaguely sympathetic and find a way to move away from you or change the subject.

Then there's the taboo you feel within yourself. That was the experience of fourth-year Stanford Ph.D. Student Zack Burton, now a couple of years past his first psychotic break and diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

"Some of the stigma, that even I myself had toward mental illness, really made that recovery somewhat more difficult than the psychosis itself and the actual events surrounding my diagnosis," Burton said.

Searching online for information and community didn't help. "There’s this lack of relatable stories out there, which is very frightening when you’re sort of WebMDing symptoms and saying 'Will life ever be the same?' A lot of responses are saying ‘No, life will never be the same again.’"

Burton and his girlfriend, psychiatric clinical research coordinator Elisa Hofmeister, were willing to talk openly about what they were experiencing—only to discover people they thought they knew had been hiding their own experiences. "It was something like three or four of our closest friends who either had mental illness or had a parent who had mental illness. But we had never realized that before, even amongst very close friends," marveled Burton.

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That's when they hit on the idea of doing the mental-illness version of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler's classic collection of first-person stories about female sexuality.

Roughly 20 years ago, the blockbuster theater piece blasted a longstanding taboo to smithereens with devastating humor and pathos. Ensler did all the research and writing.

For Manic Monologues, Burton and Hofmeister reached out to a wide variety of people to get first-person stories. There are fifteen altogether, ranging from the funny to the heartbreaking, performed by actors and the authors themselves.

Hofmeister drew a parallel between mental illness and cancer. "Back in the 1950s, cancer was really stigmatized. People did not want to talk about it. It was seen as kind of a shameful thing to receive a diagnosis of cancer. It's frightening, of course, but there's no reason to be ashamed of it," Hofmeister said.

The two enlisted the help of a wide-ranging advisory team, including Dr. Rona Hu, a Clinical Associate Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences who launched a series of theatrical vignettes designed to help Asian-Americans and Latinos confront a variety of parenting and mental health issues.

She even wrote a monologue about her own experience that she's performing in Manic Monologues.

Back when Hu was a college student, she didn’t understand her boyfriend had bipolar disorder. She was so freaked out by his behavior, she actually ghosted him.

The cast of "Manic Monologues," a theatre piece exploring 15 different perspectives on mental illness, not unlike "Vagina Monologues" did with female sexuality in the 1990s. (Back row, left to right): Audrey Mitchell, Corinne Bernhard, Zack Burton, Rebecca Jia, Grégoire Faucher, Steve Dobbs (Front row, left to right): Dr. Rona Hu, Chloe Harris, Elisa Hofmeister, Khuyen Le, Julie Lee
The cast of "Manic Monologues," a theatre piece exploring 15 different perspectives on mental illness, not unlike "Vagina Monologues" did with female sexuality in the 1990s. (Back row, left to right): Audrey Mitchell, Corinne Bernhard, Zack Burton, Rebecca Jia, Grégoire Faucher, Steve Dobbs (Front row, left to right): Dr. Rona Hu, Chloe Harris, Elisa Hofmeister, Khuyen Le, Julie Lee (Photo: Courtesy of Vianno Vo)

"Lucky for me, it was getting to be the end of the school year, and I had summer plans in another country, in Paris. These were plans I kept to myself. So when June rolled around, I just sort of got on the plane and disappeared," Ru says in her monologue, baring that awkward chapter from her past in the hopes of reaching people in pain who are afraid to admit it.

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Today, Hu is Medical Director of the Acute Psychiatric Inpatient Unit at Stanford Hospital, where she treats lots of people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression.

Hu knows what mental illness looks like today. But she encounters lots of people who don’t, who misinterpret their loved ones’ behavior, "almost like a moral weakness. Or something that people are doing on purpose," she said.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness (46.6 million in 2017).

"Stigma is such a dangerous thing. It keeps people from getting help. It keeps people from even realizing that there's an issue that there are solutions for," Hu said. She's enthusiastic about encouraging people to talk openly about mental illness, even if it means talking about the misgivings many people have about getting or staying emotionally involved with a person on a mental health roller coaster.

"If that young man had had just a few fewer episodes, or had hidden them from me better, than maybe I would have several very attractive children with him right now, and be tracking him down through his credit card receipts, and asking the highway patrol if they’d seen him. Things that I've had patients tell me about, and patients' family members tell me about," Hu said.

All three Manic Monologues shows at Stanford are sold out, but the hope is that the show travels the way Vagina Monologues did, and has the same cultural impact.

"We would really like to help high school, college, and community theaters put on their own versions of the show," Burton said, and to that effect, he added, "All proceeds of the show, as well as our gofundme campaign, will go toward seed funding for other theaters to perform the show."

'Manic Monologues' runs Thursday through Saturday, May 2–4, at Stanford's Pigott Theater. Details here.

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