In the fall of 2011, six adult Antigonish mental health consumers, five of whom had been living with schizophrenia for the better part of their lives, sat down with a team of health professionals from St. Martha’s Regional Hospital to collaborate in the design of a program meant to educate the public about the significant challenges – emotional, social, economic – often faced by individuals living with a mental illness. The group quickly decided that their objectives of educating the public and consequently helping to reduce some of the stigma associated with mental illness would stand a better chance of success if the message was presented in an entertaining way – and the Park Bench Players were born.
After months of collaborative script development and rehearsal, the Park Bench Players scheduled what was expected to be their one and only performance. The play would be performed for invited guests only. It would be called With a Little Help From My Friends – a celebration of friendship, courage, and hope. It would hopefully prove to be educational in keeping with the group’s prime objective, but it was hoped it would be entertaining and possibly inspiring as well. All would prove to be the case, and the production that was meant to be presented only once has now been performed almost twenty five times throughout the province to enthusiastic audiences of professionals, students, and the general public.
In the fall of 2012, the efforts of the Park Bench Players were recognized nationally when they were awarded Psycho-Social Rehabilitation Canada’s “national award of excellence”. PSRC is a national organization of health care professionals which champions methods of reintegrating individuals living with mental illnesses into their home communities by focusing on the strengths of those individuals. This national award was presented to the cast in Vancouver following a special performance of the play. The production has also been awarded the GASHA Community Health Advocacy Award (2012), and has been identified by Accreditation Canada as a “model of best practice” worthy of emulation by mental health organizations across the nation.
Along the way, the Park Bench Players (a name that refers fondly to their favourite social gathering place during the warmer months) have become a cohesive and dedicated advocacy group committed to helping bring mental illness “out of the medical closet” for their own benefit, but just as importantly for the benefit of all those living with a mental illness or caring for ones who do. The play has changed their lives. As one of the Players put it succinctly, “We are no longer invisible!” The play has also changed the ideas and attitudes of its audiences helping to initiate a deeper conversation about the challenges of living with a mental illness.
Strathspey Place in Mabou will present With a Little Help From My Friends – a celebration of friendship, courage, and hope on Sunday, February 24, 2pm. As the title indicates, the production is above all else a “celebration of friendship, courage, and hope”. All are welcome to join in that celebration – a celebration of the lives of the cast members, and of the communities in which they perform. Admission is free for the afternoon show. Donations will be accepted.