With rising youth suicide rates, a traveling play aims to help Colorado teens talk about mental health

Andre is smart and popular, a star high school athlete with a pretty girlfriend. But he’s also a stressed-out perfectionist who can’t square his outward image with his relentless fear of failing. 

“Man, what are you complaining about? Everybody says you got it,” he tells himself in the mirror.

But with the help of an unpopular “emo” girl named Syd who talks candidly about her own struggles with anxiety, Andre starts to open up about his feelings and consider getting help. 

The teens are characters in “Ghosted,” a play recently staged for 275 ninth-graders in the gymnasium at Greeley West High School in northern Colorado. The traveling performance will visit more than a dozen high schools across the state this year as part of a two-day workshop meant to raise awareness about mental health, suicide, and resources that can help students cope. Sponsored by Kaiser Permanente Colorado, the production comes as Colorado and the nation face rising youth suicide rates and educators continue to grapple with the question, “How can we help?”

The state’s youth suicide rate is 20.4 per 100,000 adolescents aged 15-19, nearly twice the national average of 10.5. Just last week, a 17-year-old student from Arapahoe High School in the Littleton district took her own life, the ninth reported youth suicide among the school’s students since 2013. 

Colorado has also been plagued in recent years by multiple suicides among children who haven’t yet reached their teen years, including a Denver fourth-grader in 2018, an Aurora fifth-grader the year before, and two Fort Collins sixth-graders in 2015.  

“Ghosted” is among a host of current efforts that aim to reduce those numbers. Some Colorado schools are hiring new mental health staff, offering mental health screenings, or emphasizing social and emotional skills to help students deal with frustration and stress. 

Besides following Andre and Syd, “Ghosted” depicts the experience of Liam, an angry teen reacting to turmoil at home, and Kayla, Andre’s worried girlfriend. While much of the play takes place outside the school counselor’s office, adult characters never actually appear. 

Instead, the teens talk through their feelings together — using dialogue, including some curse words, that feels mostly true to life. Besides dishing out the kind of cutting insults and sarcastic retorts familiar to any parent or teacher of a teenager, the characters also share moments of self-reflection and empathy. 

Perhaps the best barometer of whether the play hit home came after the performance during a 20-minute conversation between the actors, two facilitators and the students who filled the gym bleachers. When a facilitator asked students to stand if they thought the play accurately represented high school life, at least half the group rose. One-third stood up when asked if they had friends or knew of people who had been through experiences like those portrayed by the cast. 

Adiana Youngblood was one of the students who stood in response to both questions. The 14-year-old said she liked the subtle way the play covered “anxiety, depression, all those emotions people don’t feel comfortable talking about.” 

The message that “it’s better to let it out than keep it in,” is an important one for students, she said. 

A competitive dancer, Youngblood knows what it’s like to live with mental health issues, having been diagnosed with both depression and anxiety. 

“With the anxiety, it’s sometimes hard to go to school and function without having … that feeling of ‘Oh my gosh I can’t do this, I can’t do this.’” she said. “It’s scary.”

Besides soliciting ideas from students about who they could turn to during a crisis and what activities might help them cope with stress, facilitators handed out wallet cards with suicide prevention information after the play. 

There was additional discussion the next day — when “Ghosted” facilitators visited the classrooms of students who’d attended the play to lead smaller mental health workshops.

The idea behind the next-day sessions, like the post-play chat, was to start an ongoing conversation about mental health. 

“It’s not just a show that stands on its own,” said Brian Harper, director of “Ghosted.” “We make sure students have a chance to react to it.”

That’s one of the elements that makes the play different from other dramatizations that take on teen suicide, including the controversial Netflix drama, “13 Reasons Why,” which received heavy criticism in its first season for its graphic depiction of suicide.

With that show, Harper said, “You could be [watching] by yourself and that’s the end of it. This is meant to begin a conversation.”

Greeley West, which will host the play again in the spring for the other half of its freshman class, followed the two-day “Ghosted” sequence with a mental health presentation the following week conducted by staff from North Range Behavioral Health, a local mental health provider. 

Mitch Johnson, the ninth-grade counselor at Greeley West, said more students than usual came to see the school’s five-member counseling team after the three events. 

“After these presentations, I think we do see an influx because they’re like, ‘OK, that stigma doesn’t matter.’”

“Ghosted,” which will run this fall until Nov. 22 and again in the spring semester, is available for free to schools in Kaiser Permanente Colorado’s service area. Those interested in booking the show may contact brian.harper@kp.org.