SSHRC-funded researcher Monica Prendergast uses theatre to explore youth mental health

Dr. Monica Prendergast has been awarded a two-year SSHRC grant for the amount of $69,880 CDN to support her research project entitled ‘Youth <--> Mental Health <--> Performance: How young people respond to portrayals of mental health, resilience and well-being in and through drama and performance creation’. This project includes working with four high school drama classes across Canada to study and create original plays based on mental health and real-life experiences.

Monica is an actor, poet, arts-based researcher and a seasoned professor of Drama and Theatre Education. She is particularly passionate about theatre for young people. Growing up, her father was a theatre actor and director and then moved on to become a professor at the University of Regina where Monica would complete her first degree in acting. Coming up in this environment, it’s no wonder she followed in his footsteps.

As a Toronto-based drama instructor in the 90s, Monica studied under the mentorship of Professors Emeritus Juliana Saxton and Carole Miller who encouraged her to continue her research through teaching and drama. In 2011, she became well-positioned to come to UVic, and for the past three years, she has been a full professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. 

We spoke with Monica to learn about her current SSHRC-funded project:

How would you describe the work that you are currently doing?

The impetus for the work was my concern about what I was reading about young people's mental health, particularly during the pandemic. Research shows that anxiety, depression and suicide are spiking among young people, which is very concerning. So, as I usually do, I thought about how drama could open up a space for young people to talk about these things.

A lot of people have told me that there hasn't been any discussion in their schools about their mental health. I put in a SHRCC grant application that looked at identity as the main topic and I shifted towards this new topic of mental health just because I felt it was so important over the last two and a half years.

“This project really came out of my interest in introducing young people to professional theatre, and just wanting to develop a really positive habit in young people, which is going to the theatre is a cool thing to do. And so, that kind of work has been a part of my teaching practice.”

How will the project take shape?

With funding from an internal research grant, I completed a pilot project earlier this year in January and February, up at Claremont Secondary School in Saanich. There were 20 students involved. I've now done two case studies and I'm going to Toronto next spring to do a third. The fourth and final one will be in northern Saskatchewan in North Battleford. I felt it was important that I work with a group of Indigenous young people, and I have a doctoral student who lives in North Battleford. We'll have an opportunity to work with some young Indigenous people there.

mprendergast-story3Exploring mental health themes through a collaborative process

What are the plays about?

In the pilot project at Claremont, we worked with ten Canadian Theatre for Young Audiences plays. The students did workshops where they would read scenes and monologues from these plays and then I would capture their responses to these plays as data. For the subsequent case studies, we have decided to focus in on three plays that looked at key topics on mental health.

One play is called ‘Still Falling’, which is a solo play from Green Thumb Theatre in Vancouver that looks at anxiety and self-harm. Another play is called ‘Selfie’, which looks at the mental health fallout from a sexual assault that happened at a party in which the survivor does not remember the assault. The consequences of that also involved cyberbullying. The third play is called ‘This is How We Got Here’. It's an Indigenous play and it deals with youth suicide.

After we worked with the three plays, we shifted to the creation of an original play. In both cases so far, the local drama teacher and I facilitated the creation of scenes using a lot of improvisation, and then the students chose which scenes they felt had good potential to be developed. We added characters into those scenes, and then we made some tough choices about which scenes to keep in the show. Then it was about putting them in an order that made sense to the audience.

Images of students taking part in the play creation process. Here, they are performing their own original plays. 

How are you collecting data for your research?

Part of the data collection for our research is to record audio and video of the plays that the students have created, and analyze the recordings. What are the students telling us about their mental health in these plays that they've created? That's a big part of the outcome of the project. I'll be writing papers with my research assistants about all of the case studies.

The students’ responses to the plays in both the pilot and this more recent project were very insightful. They're savvy around how young people speak, and they're quick to point out what’s not authentic or doesn’t ring true. I had students disclose their own struggles with anxiety, panic attacks and other issues going on in their lives. I was very grateful to them for being so forthcoming and honest in their responses.

What challenges have you encountered so far?

In the pilot project, there were a number of students in a mixed-grade drama class who chose not to be involved. It took me a while to kind of understand, but they were really protecting their own mental health. Their argument was ‘why would I want to damage my mental health by having to do a workshop on a play about suicide’? They just didn't want to go there.

In Port Coquitlam, our second project, the drama teacher auditioned students so they were given the power to opt-in, which made a huge difference. Moving forward, I would like to continue that process of making sure that they fully understand what being involved means. Since all ten of those Port Coquitlam students wanted to be there and were really committed to the process, I was able to build strong relationships with them.

Exploring the theme of isolation and students' experiences during the pandemic 

What supports are there for the students who are involved?

My research assistants created an incredible mental health resource package for the students. It has crisis lines, Kids Help and lots of places where students can go if they're feeling upset by any of the content or the play creation phase. In Port Coquitlam, we had a student youth worker come in on our first day. It was important for us that the students knew that they could go to someone. I think it's a good ethical practice in research to make sure that the students really feel like you care about them and their mental health.

In fact: data from the project so far has shown that these young people appreciated the opportunity to address these topics because they aren't being addressed. That meant a lot to them. That's a great finding and I’m hoping it will be supported in the next two case studies as well.

What are your hopes for the outcomes of this research project?

We'll be writing articles in targeted journals, which is typical for any research study. I would also like to create a resource guide for teachers who might want to do this work. 

My last SHRCC project was funded to create an e-textbook for high school students called ‘Web of Performance’, which introduces students to the field of performance studies. I worked with UVic Libraries to publish it. I could see us doing something similar with this project, such as putting together a package for teachers and then sending it out through the Association of BC Drama Educators list and others.

It would be free to download and I would make an effort to get this package out to as many drama teachers as possible through their provincial specialist associations. It would be in plain language and really practical for the classroom. Something like: ‘Here’s how you can do what I did, which is create a space in your drama classroom to introduce young people to these incredible Canadian plays’.

“I’m very grateful for the opportunity to teach and work with students in the Faculty of Education. With this most recent project, I’m grateful to be able to work with high school students again. They give me so much energy. I get really fired up when I'm working with young people.”

 Monica Prendergast, 2022