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'Pieces: In My Own Voice' Brings Mental Health Struggles to the Stage

Image courtesy of Brenda Wesley

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about one in five adults in the United States has a mental illness – and rates of suicide attempts and deaths by prescription drug overdose are on the rise nationally.

In order to continue to bring attention to mental health and fight against the stigma surrounding it, a collaboration of community organizations, health systems, and faith based organizations in Milwaukee are presenting a play, called Pieces: In My Own Voice.

Written and directed by Brenda Wesley, director of education and outreach of National Alliance of Mental Illness Greater Milwaukee, Pieces portrays the struggles of living with a mental illness and emphasizes the darkness of stigma through spoken word, monologues, music, and dance.

Wesley wrote the play because of her personal journey with her son living with mental illness. Diagnosed with paranoia schizophrenia when he was 21, both Wesley and her son learned the hard way about the lack of support from their community and from the prison system that worsened his condition due to treatment protocols.

"I was actually trying to look at a form that I could use to talk about mental illness because of the stigma behind it. And using a platform that I could reach multiple people to deliver a message of education and also hope," Wesley explains. "Because I truly believe that arts is a way to really open up someone's heart."

Pieces has been performed in various spaces from basements, school auditoriums, and theaters for the past seven years. Most of the cast lives with a mental health disorders, have family members affected by a mental health disorder, or have someone in their lives who attempted or committed suicide. Wesley says that she considers the play as more of an outreach than a performance. "That's how we really engage the audience because it comes from a personal place within each of our actors."

The play is also a collaboration of community organizations, health systems, and faith based organizations, and will act as the finale of Mental Health Awareness Day MKE at the Milwaukee Area Technical College - Downtown Milwaukee Campus. In addition to the play, day-long mental health resources and workshops will be available to the public.

Pastor Walter Lanier, of the Progressive Baptist Church of Milwaukee and director of the Men of Color Initiative at MATC, says the collaboration across entities is incredibly important because each organization can help inform each other.

"Unfortunately, a place where people often come to get help and to be heard is a place where people are sometimes re-stigmatized and traumatized - and that's inside the church," he says.

As a leader of a church, Pastor Lanier says that it is up to him and others in a similar positions to set the tone and talk more openly about mental illness because "ignorance does a lot of damage."

"We've seen how it has shaped our community differently," he says. "And what that has shown me is that we can shape other communities differently by what we talk about and what we make OK to talk about."

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Audrey is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.