May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s a month designed to highlight mental health issues and to reduce the stigma surrounding them. One of the best ways to do that is by telling our stories. Each time we tell our stories we take a brick out of the wall of stigma surrounding mental health.
Four years ago, I thought I had landed the opportunity of my dreams: a lead role as an actor at one of the most powerful theatres in the country. My dream soon became a mental health nightmare. On September 28, 2019, I collapsed in front of an audience on stage. My body was dragged off the stage by crew members. I began sobbing uncontrollably in the wings, “They have to do something!” I was experiencing my first panic attack that was caused by certain conditions in my workplace. Little did I know the events of that evening and the subsequent actions of my employer would fundamentally alter my health and my life.
The phrase that many people said to me in the years since I collapsed was, “I didn’t think this would happen to someone like you.” I thought, “What does that mean?” Because a mental health crisis could happen to anyone. It made me think, “What if I could make a podcast to show people how a mental health crisis happens. Dramatize it, moment to moment. All within a juicy backstage theatre story.”
So I decided to tell my story. Through Haywood Productions, I created Stage Combat: A Mental Health Story, an immersive podcast listening experience with a unique format: twenty-minute, scripted, nonfiction, serialized stories about my crisis followed by ten-minute conversations with a mental health professional about the story you just heard.
In making the podcast, I thought a lot about that statement: “I didn’t think this would happen to someone like you.” There’s a lot to unpack there.
Is it the stigma about mental health that exists even after the pandemic (when all we heard about was mental health?) That someone experiencing a mental health struggle is just “weak?” Is it the stigma within the stigma about men and mental health? Do we not expect men, particularly of a certain age, to suffer mental health crises?
One of the clinical psychologists featured in “Stage Combat: A Mental Health Story” told me that a common response to seeing someone else’s mental health crisis is, sadly, to ignore it. Otherwise, it opens up the possibility to the person observing the crisis that it could happen to them. The easier reaction, and maybe the protective response, is to say, “Well, I wouldn’t react that way.”
Mental Health Awareness Month gives us all a great opportunity to change that manner of thinking. And we can change it through the “normalization” of the conversation about mental health. That means speaking openly and often about mental health in our everyday conversations and in our workplaces. And, as uncomfortable as it may seem, we need to acknowledge in those spaces that a mental health crisis could happen to “someone like you.”
I hope this Mental Health Awareness Month empowers you to share your story, if you have one, with…someone. Anyone. (You don’t have to produce a two-season, twenty-episode podcast series like I did.) Simply sharing what you’ve been going through over coffee or dinner can go a long way for yourself and someone else. You never know: you might open the door for the listener to also share a story they desperately want to be heard.
Sean Hayden is the CEO of Haywood Productions and a veteran actor of two Broadway national tours and productions on stages across the country. His personal mental health podcast story, Stage Combat: A Mental Health Story, premieres May 16, 2023. You can follow/subscribe free to it on Apple podcasts, Spotify and wherever you get your podcast.