'Not all elves and Santa:' Drama therapy program on suicide aims to help during holidays

David Peacock is the drama therapist at None Too Fragile Theatre in Akron.
David Peacock is the drama therapist at None Too Fragile Theatre in Akron.

The holidays can be a difficult time for those struggling with the loss of loved ones or mental health issues such as suicidal thoughts.

"It's not all elves and Santa," said David Peacock, an actor and registered drama therapist who conducts mental health workshops at None Too Fragile Theatre in Akron.

The theater, known for its Off Broadway-style black box theater, isn't offering a holiday-themed play in December. It's producing the Pulitzer Prize-winning American classic " 'Night, Mother" by Marsha Norman, whose two-character story focuses on suicide, Dec. 2-17.

Paired with the show's heavy subject matter, None Too Fragile is offering the free workshop "The Book of Life & Death" on suicidal ideation Dec. 4. Peacock will lead the drama therapy program, which includes lunch, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the theater lobby at 732 W. Exchange St.

Working through the holidays

Those who are mourning loved ones they've lost to suicide often find the holidays difficult to get through.

"This is the first time that they associate with a family get-together, oh, that person is not gonna be there. So it sort of recycles or brings up again the grief, and so they're left feeling bereft around the time when everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves," Peacock said.

Friends and family can be supportive of those struggling with grief by asking about loved ones' plans for the holidays and asking whether the holidays are a rough time for them.

"What people can do is talk about it, about how they're feeling and what the holidays mean for them," Peacock said.

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People may feel inhibited from sharing their grief during the holidays. But Peacock stressed that it's important to share your struggles with loss at this time.

"That's when you have to speak up. You have to say, 'You know, this is my first time without this person and I'm finding it hard to cope with that,' " he said. "The holiday can turn into a celebration of remembrance for that person."

Which months have the most suicides?

The holidays can be a difficult time for many but suicide rates do not go up then, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to data from the CDC National Center for Health Statistics in September, the months in 2021 with the highest number of suicides in the U.S. were August and October, with December ranking 10th for number of suicides by month, November ninth and January eighth.

The number and rate of suicides in the United States increased 4% from 2020 to 2021, after two consecutive years of decline in 2019 and 2020, according to the CDC.

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If someone you know says that they want to end their life, the first thing that must be asked is if the person has a plan, Peacock said.

If they don't have a plan, they're likely struggling with suicidal ideation, or suicidal thoughts. If they do have a plan, Peacock said, "then alarm bells should start ringing." With either answer, Peacock said, ask the person whether they've talked to a mental health professional and offer information about organizations that can help, including phone numbers.

"Do you want me to come with you? Do you want me to call somebody on your behalf?" are other questions to ask, Peacock said. "And just stay with them."

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What is drama therapy?

The purpose of a meaningful drama is to hold a mirror up to life to help us make sense of it. Peacock, one of just a handful of drama therapists in Ohio, said that every professional U.S. theater should have a resident drama therapist.

"Address what's going on in life and then don't shy away from it," he said.

In Peacock's drama therapy practice, he often sees clients who have exhausted themselves with other forms of therapy.

"I'm not traumatizing them anymore and I'm working from arm's length through metaphors so that they can address the problem that they have without becoming distressed," said Peacock, who uses storytelling as a tool to help heal.

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Through stories, he said, a person starts to identify with a character. The client is separated from the story's trauma and the character is doing the work for them, Peacock said.

Theater co-artistic director Sean Derry agreed with the importance of drama therapy at theaters. Many of None Too Fragile's plays deal with topics of mental health or trauma where characters face extraordinary circumstances. Hearing and seeing those stories unfold help people reflect on what they or their loved ones have been through.

"When I've seen the benefits of what David does as a drama therapist for other people, I have thought, 'You know, it'd be great to have this as an ongoing part of what we do,' as None Too Fragile is not just to tell stories but also to provide an outlet for healing and giving a voice to folks who didn't feel like they had a voice because of their trauma or their pain," Derry said.

Peacock, 62, is a member of Actors' Equity Association and British Actors Equity who hails from Scotland. He earned a master's degree in drama therapy from the University of Roehampton in London. He is a member of the Health Care Professions Council of the UK and the British Association of Dramatherapists.

He has lived with his wife, Lisa, in Akron since 2011 and gained American citizenship in June. She recently finished her PhD in drama therapy at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England.

His private drama therapy work in Akron also includes work with veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress. Since 2018, he has been facilitating drama therapy workshops on post traumatic stress, addiction and identity at None Too Fragile.

Book of hope

Participants in Peacock's "Book of Life & Death" drama therapy workshop start out with theater games and end up creating a book that will help with the subject of suicide.

Theater games start by rolling a ball to each person in the circle and saying their own name and the other person's name while doing so, which requires eye contact. This encourages the group to work as a team from the start.

Through key prompts, everyone constructs a "Book of Life and Death" that includes positive self-affirmations. As they do so, they communicate with others in the room and a positive, collective energy grows, the drama therapist said.

"It's a book of hope and it points out to them that are certain things in their life that they still want to do, that they are loved and that people do care about them," Peacock said.

"The Book of Life & Death," developed by Peacock's drama theater mentor Pete Holloway in the United Kingdom, comes from a hospital setting. Peacock has been doing the workshop for 15 years, including with veterans who have made multiple suicide attempts.

"As the clock slows down, you're actually giving them some breathing space" from suicidal thoughts, Peacock said.

How to participate in drama therapy workshop

David Peacock is the drama therapist at None Too Fragile Theatre in Akron.
David Peacock is the drama therapist at None Too Fragile Theatre in Akron.

Anyone who has an interest in the issue of suicide may sign up for the drama therapy workshop, which is a public service to the community and can accommodate about 20 participants.

Participants are asked to bring a yoga mat for the active workshop, which uses drama as a therapeutic tool for people to tell their stories, set goals, solve problems, express feelings and achieve catharsis.

Participants may include those who have suicidal ideation, those who have lost someone to suicide, those who have family members who have attempted suicide, mental health professionals or others.

Registrants do not have to see " 'Night, Mother" to take part in the workshop. A trigger warning about the play's highly sensitive material, including references to self-harm and suicide, can be seen at nonetoofragile.com.

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The theater's warning urges those thinking about suicide or who know someone thinking about suicide to call, text or chat 988 for the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

Those in emotional distress or suicidal crisis can also call 800-273-8255 to talk to trained counselors for free 24/7. For more information, see 988lifeline.org.

Other help resources are the 24-hour Summit County ADM Board mental health crisis line at 330-434-9144, 24-hour Portage Path Psychiatric Emergency Services at 330-762-6110 or by texting "NAMI" to 741741 for 24/7, confidential, free crisis counseling. (See namisummit.org/crisis-info.)

Arts and restaurant writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com.

Drama therapy workshop details

Program: "The Book of Life & Death," a drama therapy workshop on suicidal ideation

When: Workshop 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 4, arrive at 9:30 a.m.

Where: None Too Fragile Theatre, 732 W. Exchange St., Akron

Cost: Free

Information: nonetoofragile.com

Show details

Drama: " 'Night, Mother"

When: Opens 8 p.m. Dec. 2, continuing through Dec. 17, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Dec. 11, 8 p.m. Dec. 12

Where: None Too Fragile Theatre, 732 W. Exchange St., Akron

Onstage: Anne McEvoy, Kelly Strand

Offstage: Marsha Norman, playwright; Sean Derry, director

Cost: $30

Information: nonetoofragile.com or 330-962-5547

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: None Too Fragile in Akron focuses on Drama therapy in workshop