Theater group sheds light on mental illness

September 16, 2010 (CHICAGO)

Erasing the Distance is a non-for-profit theatre company that travels around educating and advocating serious mental health issues.

Five years ago actress and director Brighid O'Shaughnessy started 'erasing the distance.'

"I had some people really close to me who were struggling with mental illness and at the time I didn't know very much about it, you know, I had known people with mental illness but I didn't know really what to do about treatment. I didn't know about recovery. When it was happening to me I felt embarrassed and I felt really afraid and I was just nervous about telling people because I didn't know how they would respond," said O'Shaughnessy.

Ensemble members feel this is a rare opportunity to utilize their talent as well as learn about mental illness, as Maura Kidwell says.

"I knew virtually nothing about mental illness going into working with this group and I learned that, I mean I was shocked by the fact that one in four people in any given year is going to experience mental illness…It 's also prompted me to ask questions about mental illness of my family and got me to learn about the history of my family's mental health too," said Kidwell.

Meredith Siemsen is another actress whose awareness on mental illness has changed.

"I didn't know anything about depression. I didn't know what bipolar was. I didn't know some of the basic, basic stuff and I think that's the case for most of us," said Siemsen.

The theatre company reaches out to a number of groups.

"I would say out primary audience are high school and college students, mainly because 50 percent of people with mental illness get their first episode around 14 and 75 percent do by age 24, so that's a really critical time to reach them with this information so they don't wait 10 to 15 years before they do something about it," said O'Shaughnessy.

"To me, it's about erasing the distance between people with illness and people without. It's instead of there being a chasm where people say, okay, you have schizophrenia, you're over there, instead of saying you have schizophrenia and maybe we're a little closer than I thought we were before," she said.

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