According to Youth Mental Health Canada, an estimated 1.2 million children and youth across the country are affected by mental illness in a normal year. And over the past 16 months, this number has only gotten worse. The pandemic has had an enormous effect on the mental health of many Canadians—and kids aren’t excluded from that.
In Breakwater, the new multi-media production from Some Assembly Theatre Company, youth mental health is at the forefront.
Using a world-wide flood as a symbol for the COVID-19 pandemic, audiences follow six young characters as they isolate themselves in their homes and explore what effect that has on their mental well-being. Performed and written by Vancouver youth — in cooperation with Some Assembly artistic director Valerie Methot — the play tackles issues such as depression, identity, negative self-talk, and, ultimately, community and healing.
In a phone interview, Methot told the Straight that she was inspired to make a play on children’s mental health before the pandemic began after having conversations with young people in Vancouver. Throughout these discussions, she learned that youth’s mental well-being concerns were not being heard.
“Unfortunately, we live in a time when youth are experiencing mental health struggles, and sometimes it’s seen as ‘oh, they just want attention’ or ‘they’re just making it up’,” Methot explains. “It’s really important to me to raise awareness about mental health struggles that young people are facing because it is real. And we really need to normalize that conversation.”
Methot says over the past year and half, that conversation has become even more necessary. “Being in isolation has really increased the mental health struggles of the youth,” she explains. “I really wanted to put the spotlight on more of the detail and the core of the issue that young people are experiencing. And that’s what Breakwater sheds light on.”
Through poetry, music, and dance, the play incorporates the ways youths express themselves while dealing with emotional challenges. Though the subject matter is a heavy one, Methot says the experience of conceptualizing, writing, and performing the piece has been incredibly healing for the artists. Being able to express themselves honestly and in a safe space had encouraged the performers to build confidence in themselves – even while feeling a bit vulnerable while sharing stories of mental illness.
“For one performer, they had never written a song before or anything like that,” Methot says. “And they wanted to try it out. So they wrote a poem, and Sophie Lebrie [the mentor musician for Breakwater] worked with them and helped them shape it into a song which they perform in the play. And it's absolutely stunning.”
It’s critical for the youths of Vancouver to be able to see themselves reflected in a piece like Breakwater, Methot says.
“It’s important because they are going to be able to relate to the stories. In going through the thoughts and feelings the characters share, they are going to be validated,” she says. “That's a really powerful thing, especially for someone who's really struggling and maybe feels like they're alone in the world. When they see someone who is their peer, someone their age, going through the same thing, it's extremely validating.”
She added: “Breakwater features a cast of diverse youth—so that’s going to appeal to a diverse, young audience. Which is important. We have BIPOC performers, and Indigenous, people of colour, and LGBTQIA2S+ performers. Because there’s such a range of cultural backgrounds and struggles, the audience is going to find something to relate to.”
Methot says the play, at its core, is about self-care, compassion for others, and finding one’s place in loving communities.
“Our young people really need that more than ever, because they've been so isolated for such a long time,” she says. “It's really important for all of us. But focusing on the youth here—it's really important that they feel connected to others and that they feel connected to themselves.”
“If we can surround ourselves with strong, caring communities,” she adds. “Then that certainly helps our healing and mental health journey.”
Watch the trailer below for Breakwater below. The show debuts online for free on June 30.