Children's play tackles grown-up issuesA musical playing locally lifts the veil on a murky topic — childhood mental illness.
By: Sarah Horner, Duluth News Tribune
In this fairy tale, Little Hood has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and gets distracted easily on the way to Grandmother’s house. Sleeping Handsome is a young prince who suffers from depression and decides to prick his finger on a spindle so he can fall asleep for a long time.
Rapunzel isn’t locked in her tower; she is staying there because she has an anxiety disorder that makes her terrified to leave.
The musical “Fidgety Fairy Tales” is making its way around Northland schools this fall, a response to the increasing numbers of children with mental illness — some as young as preschoolers.
“We are seeing more ADHD being diagnosed these days; we are seeing more depression; boy, we are seeing more-fill-in-the-blank,” said Kim Matteen, director of development and foundation director for the Human Development Center, the organization responsible for bringing the show to the area in conjunction with the County Seat Theater Company.
“We are hoping this production will not only bring the message that kids, too, deal with mental health stuff and that it needs to be treated,” Matteen said, “but that it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Area students ranging in age from 10 to 17 are the actors in the show, which also attempts to touch on some of the positives that can come along with a mental illness diagnosis. The hyperactivity that goes along with Little Hood’s ADHD, for example, can make her a great multi-tasker if channeled correctly.
“Little Hood, Little Hood you are always distracted, but I love the way you’re always active,” the kids rap during the performance.
Another lesson is that mental illness isn’t something people can just snap out of like a bad mood.
The show’s message is important for teachers and students to hear, given the prevalence of mental illness in children — particularly when it comes to depression, according to Steve Sutherland, a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist at the Human Development Center.
Sutherland said 15 to 20 percent of youth will suffer from one or more episodes of clinical depression before they turn 18. About 10 percent of kids were suffering from depression in the 1980s.
“We’ve seen a measurable increase over the years that is really pretty striking,” he said.
The jury is still out on the reason behind the increase, but Sutherland said it’s probably due to a combination of genetic, psychological and social factors, such as kids not spending as much time with parents and spending more time in front of computers, which can be isolating.
Sean Biskey, the lead in Sleeping Handsome, said treatment made all the difference for his anxiety.
The 19-year-old used to be terrified to drive a car, but since seeing a therapist he is now able to drive all over the place.
“I realized how anxious I was about the smallest things, about things there was no reason to be anxious about,” Biskey said. “It feels great to not feel that way anymore.”
His personal story makes his work with Fidgety Fairy Tales even more rewarding, he said.
“I think it’s important for kids to learn that anybody can have mental illness and that you shouldn’t be ashamed about it,” he said. “Hopefully, kids can learn that through our play and enjoy it, too.”
Students at Lowell Elementary School seemed to be doing both at a performance at the school last week.
Jon Faynik, a third-grader, said he could relate to some of the stuff going on in the play, particularly to Little Hood’s hyperactivity.
“I thought it taught good stuff,” he said, “like not to tease people that have mental problems.”
The production at Lowell was the first of many. Performances at area schools run through October. There also will be public performances of the show Oct. 22 to Oct. 24 at the Performing Arts Center in Cloquet.