The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A play that hopes to smash the stigma surrounding mental illness

Actor Frank Faucher in a scene of “The Manic Monologues.” The play features dozens of vignettes about mental illness. (Vianna Vo)

After “The Vagina Monologues” debuted in 1996, it quickly became a hit. Soon, Eve Ensler’s episodic play had graduated from off-off Broadway to Madison Square Garden to college stages the world over.

The creators of a new confessional play, “The Manic Monologues,” hope it will become just as ubiquitous. “When it comes to mental health, silence kills,” they write. “It is not enough to put this play on once, and then forget about it. It’s time to change our culture.”

The play, which debuts at Stanford University on Thursday, features dozens of true stories about mental illness. It gives voice to real people whose lives have been touched by mental-health disorders, the creators say.

In the United States, 1 in 5 adults lives with mental illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the majority are mildly or moderately affected by their mental-health condition. But 4.5 percent of all U.S. adults have severe mental illnesses that substantially limit their lives.

Regardless, stigma can make things worse. A 2013 literature review found that stigma is widespread, and that inaccurate beliefs about the supposed danger of people with mental-health disorders have grown over time.

Zack Burton, a Stanford PhD student, learned about stigma firsthand when he had a psychotic break and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Burton and his partner Elisa Hofmeister felt isolated and helpless until they heard about the similar experiences of close friends — and wondered why it had taken so long for them to share their stories. A show was born.

The play’s advisory team includes mental-health advocates, researchers and journalists. One adviser, Rona Hu, directed Stanford Hospital’s acute psychiatric inpatient unit for more than a decade. She will tell her own story alongside Burton and others.

Fifteen actors deliver the monologues onstage. The play is running for only a few days at Stanford, but the creators say they hope to one day get it to “a theater near you.”

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