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Youth Suicide Intervention ...teens talking to teens

The concern for teen suicide is an issue many communities have been dealing with or addressing recently. I'd like to share with you a youth generated program using art, drama and marionettes which was completed in a BC community of 70,000. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens...second only to accidents which many believe occurs due to suicidal tendencies.

Community meetings were held with over 30 agencies to discuss ways to present the topic to youths. Discussion turned toward starting a youth program for suicide intervention and prevention. Attending as President of Hospice, I introduced the idea of using marionettes therapeutically and creating a play to give voice to their concerns, issues and feelings about teen suicide that they could then perform for the community at large. In effect, "teens were talking to teens". Grant monies were found and I was contracted to develop and implement the program.

Between 30 and 40 teens came from all social backgrounds and interests from the area. Some were at risk, others seeking information to help friends, and some interested in being of service in the community. The program involved working with a local mental health agency, crisis line officials, counselors and extensive volunteer community support. It was a team effort and communication between all the people involved was the key in making something like this happen.

The teens met once a week for 2 hours over Nine months during the school year. Some came and went depending on what phase we were working on while others stayed throughout the program. The challenge was to get the messages across, doing it in a safe way for the teen's to express them and using the teen's phrases and perceptions to give them a voice. It meant designing a program in which they could make decisions and have input on every level in the process. It was quite a challenge, a lot of fun, frustrations along the way but everybody had a wonderful time.

We began with education on causes of teen suicide, intervention steps and where to get help. Knowledgeable people from the community were invited to speak to the group on issues the teens felt lead up to suicidal tendencies for their age group. The local Coroner spoke about death, a gay youth spoke about his experiences and a First Nations woman spoke about intercultural issues. Having taken the suicide intervention training, I then led the teens into exploration and specifics as to what they could do to help each other and their friends.

At the same time, the teens were involved weekly in some form of creativity whether it was "finding the story", determining how the marionettes would look, doing simple black light masks, always doing exercises or actions with the marionettes as a "natural" way to learn to manipulate them. Everything was in context to the material being discussed.

The original idea was to have the teens write the play but I found out very quickly that they were not interested in making that in-depth time commitment. By developing spontaneous role-playing on the suicide issues the teens were able to express and release their thoughts and feelings in asafe way. At the same time my husband, Rodney, videotaped the role playing to gather material for the play, portions of which were incorporated into the script making it as much "their play", "their voice" and "their concerns" as possible. Theywere thrilled to see and hear their own words and phrases in the play. One of my biggest challenges was to maintain a continuous flow and consistency carrying from week to week their decisions, input and ideas.

The contract wasto lease existingmarionettes as it was not possible to have the teens physically build the marionettes since there were no facilities or tools available. I quickly recognized that it would not have been "theirs" if wehad used already existing characters, so my husband and I spent the summer months making 14 new ones in the image that the teens had envisioned. In one exercise conducted, they even told us the type of clothing, hair-styles and colours right down to the shoes. So the "old" marionettes were used in the first few months to practice, role-play, and have fun until enough material had been developed to create the new characters and write the play.

We used all our professional staging and equipment, built new sets and scenes (human and marionette) so that they would experience something of that dimension which brought forth self-esteem and pride in accomplishment for everyone.

The program was totally responsive to the players in the program. They felt a deep commitment and ownership of it because it was based on their essence and their input.

In the end, marionettes were used as the prime message bearers. Black light mask performances were used to show underlying feelings during the human acting portion of the stage performance, and shadow puppetry was used to enact a completed suicide. This resulted in a multifaceted stage production performed several times to the community. The youth performed, moved sets, handled lights/sound etc., they felt they "owned" the whole thing. Healing took place not only among the teens but also the audience members.

I have found the marionettes not only to be a unique and interesting art form but also to be a very powerful tool. They enlist engagement and communication in a fun and safe way whether someone is operating the marionette or whether it's the audience or group that's responding to that performance.

The positive feedback has been overwhelming from the youth involved, parents, community groups, and schools. It has been recommended that the program concept be continued. The program was submitted in a North America survey by a member of Health Canada as, "one of the best practices" across Canada and the US.