May 22, 2014
By Tim Kelly
When Grade 12 drama students from Maple High School chose to connect with their peers and discuss issues around mental health, they didn’t take any half measures.
No, they decided they wanted to go all-in, so they spent months researching issues around depression and social anxiety, wrote an original play, combined forces with health experts at York University, and late last month, performed a production at the post-secondary school before 600 secondary school students at the York campus.
Under the direction of Maple drama teacher Lazaros Geronikolos, a high-energy, motivating force who has been pushing the project since last August with his Maple class, the students produced and performed the play, ‘To the moon and back,’ which focuses on the experience of a young girl struggling with social anxiety disorder.
“My kids were really inspired by it and I have been so impressed with the way my students were invested with it,” said Mr. Geronikolos, of how his class has worked at the project.
“Everything was original. The kids wrote everything themselves, including the music which was also original. (The play) was written through research they did and turned into an original piece,” he added.
“We reference various reflections and I guess statistics in and around the broader mental health spectrum. We don’t just focus on one disorder, but one disorder helps us get through the narrative.”
The teacher said the idea started in his drama class when his students told him they wanted to choose a topic and create their own piece. They needed a bigger venue to mount the production than the high school gym which is where the collaboration with York University and its faculty began.
They settled on social anxiety as a theme because, according to Mr. Geronikolos, most of the students, “felt that once they did their research on the various disorders, social anxiety was the disorder they could connect with the most, given the fact that they’re now transitioning from high school to post-secondary school.”
Once the play was finished, the students had a series of question-and-answer sessions with the audience, generated discussion, and gave their guests a study guide to open up a program in their own schools.
Student Nicholas Walmsley from Maple High, got plenty from the experience at York saying he hopes it helps people to “break the stigma around mental health,” believing it needs “proper attention” from society.
“There is this negative connotation with depression and schizophrenia, that they are violent, but in reality that (people who have it) are just actual people. They need support from others in order to interact properly like everybody else,” said Mr. Walmsley.
Mr. Geronikolos was gratified to see all the support he received from the York Region District School Board, York University, the Faculty of Education and the 600 staff and students who took part on the day to learn about mental health.
“The students learned from those closest to the research in the area of mental health. They hooked up with teacher candidates in the faculty of education, practised teaching skills, skills in drama, and were mentored in teaching practices. It was a real collaboration. The department of health supported the event. York University provided us with funds to bus the kids in from all the schools and provided lunch in turn for giving us a short spiel for why York is a great place to study,” he said.