It’s a really fine line that the teenagers from the Vaterstetten middle school are exploring this morning: It’s all about the question: Where does a bad mood end – and where does depression begin? This is anything but easy to recognize, especially with pubescents, as they generally like to be stuffy at times. Be it lovesickness, school stress, football frustration – or just like that. More and more often, however, a young soul becomes so dark that outside help becomes necessary. A really extraordinary theater project promises enlightenment, which is a week-long guest at a school and culminates in interactive performances. Under the title “Icebreaker” young people explain to other young people what it is: depression in adolescence. A topic of great explosiveness, especially as a result of Corona.
And this prevention theater, which is currently being performed at the middle school in Vaterstetten, works like this: seven volunteers, in this case all eighth and ninth graders, play eight short scenes that are based on the everyday life of the young people. The simple stage design shows an abstract multi-party house with a staircase in the middle and two youth rooms on the right and left. And its inhabitants are the main characters, Anna and Robert, played vividly by Magdalena and Leonhard. Both characters have trouble falling asleep, getting up in the morning, making things to the satisfaction of family and friends. It’s about sharing meals, untidy rooms, missed homework, rejected leisure activities and the like. That should sound familiar to many in the audience, because there are also young people sitting there, from middle school itself, but also from the neighboring high school.
But it’s not about the recognition effect, but about a fine distinction: Which of the people portrayed is going through a difficult phase – and which is slipping into a serious depression? Anna? Or is it Robert? Finding out is the task of the young viewers. They become a kind of “specialist collective” that is supposed to discuss the two case studies between the individual scenes. However, the young people are not left alone: On the one hand, they are given a checklist on which the characteristics of depression are presented in the form of questions. There is also a moderator. Theater teacher Jean-François Drozak, the creative mind behind “Icebreaker”, accompanies the search for a diagnosis.
A lack of joy and energy, loss of appetite, concentration problems, exaggerated self-criticism, fear of the future, deep despair and even suicidal thoughts: depression has many faces. “It’s also an insidious, silent illness – and we want to reflect that with our piece and its precise, careful aesthetics,” says Drozak from the “Kunstdünger” agency in Nuremberg. The topic is very important to him, he has been working on the “Icebreaker” project for ten years,” says the drama teacher. In the beginning, however, he encountered considerable hurdles, both in the education and in the medical sector. “Depression among young people has long been a big taboo,” says Drozak, “but luckily that’s changing. During the pandemic, young people have done so much to protect those who are weaker – now it’s time to give something back to them.”
The prevention theater has already been a guest at 20 Bavarian schools this year, and happily it will continue on this scale in 2023, says Monika Nitschke, who oversees the project on behalf of AOK Bayern. The health insurance company is the sponsor behind “Icebreaker”, thanks to a new prevention law, there are now many more opportunities to promote such initiatives, says Nitschke. The fact that two Bavarian ministers are acting as patrons shows how seriously the topic is now being taken by the official bodies: Minister of Education Michael Piazolo and Minister of Health Klaus Holetschek.
People in Vaterstetten are also enthusiastic. School psychologist Susanne Dorner-Ramlow and Rector Catherine Aicher are particularly pleased that, thanks to the interaction during the performances, they can reach so many students intensively. After three performances, around 360 young people from Vaterstetten will have experienced the piece. But according to Drozak, the effect of the icebreaker will probably not be limited to this one morning: “Since statistically around 30 percent of young people are mentally stressed at the moment, there will be a lot of talking after the theatre.” And the students will not be left alone with that – but will catch them: the school psychologist is always available for discussions, even on weekends she can be reached.
It is also possible that the person seeking advice does not come because of themselves, because depression is a challenge for the patient’s entire environment. In addition to the parents, friends and especially siblings are particularly affected, and their perspective is also highlighted in the play. The young viewers should learn to recognize suspicions of depression in someone else – and then to address them.
The young actors have long recognized how important the topic is. Even if one or the other first came to “Icebreaker” out of a passion for the theatre, the intensive confrontation with the Depression has meanwhile clearly left its mark. “Over time we realized what these sentences really mean,” says one of the young actresses, explaining that the seemingly everyday scenes are very profound texts. “And everyone should know something about this topic, should be able to classify bad feelings,” emphasizes a stage colleague. In this respect, one hopes to be able to stimulate many conversations with the play. However, slipping into the burdened roles is not necessarily easy for the young people. “I would never be so angry with my sister as a brother!”
One thing is certain: This playful, interactive and therefore very personal examination takes the foreign out of depression – and creates understanding for those affected and their environment. But one message is particularly important: that this disease can be cured.
Bavarian schools interested in the “Icebreaker” project can contact Jean-François Drozak by e-mail [email protected].