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Fostering Mentally Healthier Workplaces via Disability Advocacy: COVID-Era Strategies and Successes

By Zachary F. Murguía Burton

Can employers foster mentally healthier workplaces via theater?

Here, I discuss a mental health advocacy and inclusivity initiative built around a theatrical production, The Manic Monologues, with a particular focus on pandemic-era efforts to foster awareness, empathy, and connection around mental health challenges.

These efforts aim to promote healthier and more inclusive (and, by extension, more productive) workplaces in the face of the ongoing, escalating global mental health crisis.

Structure and Strategy of The Manic Monologues

Originally conceived as a play, The Manic Monologues highlights diverse accounts of mental health and illness to spread awareness, fight stigma, and foster community.

The play features true stories told by those living with conditions including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, and others, as well as stories told from the viewpoint of family members (including children, parents, spouses), community members, and medical professionals. Stories were intentionally selected to encapsulate this diversity of perspectives, as well as a diversity of emotions and tones (ranging from tragic to powerful, uplifting, and even humorous), to build the play’s overall narrative arc.

This inclusive, diverse, cross-disciplinary approach is central to construction and presentation of The Manic Monologues. Much of the initiative’s power is derived from the synergistic bridging of peer-led advocacy, the lived experience perspective (for example, I live with bipolar disorder, psychosis, and suicidality), and the involvement of medical and mental health practitioners and scholars, as well as literary and performing arts professionals and academics.

Examples of Pandemic-Era Productions

Since the May 2019 premiere of The Manic Monologues at Stanford University, productions and programming have been made accessible via in-person and virtual platforms for communities including theatres, hospitals, universities, churches, and large corporations. The following encapsulate three examples of cross-sectoral programming developed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  1. Corporate Healthcare: In September 2020, The Manic Monologues film debuted as keynote to the 50-hospital, 80,000-employee healthcare system AdventHealth’s 30th annual executive leadership conference. A core component of this presentation (and hospital and healthcare leader workshops our team subsequently developed for AdventHealth) was the sharing of vulnerable personal stories of mental health and illness by senior corporate leadership to create a safe space for mental health, empathy, and connection both within the healthcare system and for the six million served each year by AdventHealth. Destigmatization was a rallying call in this push to build healthier, more inclusive workplaces and primary care services, as echoed in AdventHealth CEO Terry Shaw’s opening remarks: “We are determining how we’re going to put behavioral health in the community in a way that, first, reduces stigma.”
  2. Broadway: In February 2021, The Manic Monologues debuted as an interactive digital experience via a multistakeholder partnership between Tony Award-winning McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton University Health Services, workplace-focused brain health nonprofit One Mind, and others. The free web-based platform serves to promote access to and engagement with these conversations despite the pandemic-era disconnected world, and likewise served to bring visibility and attention to mental health by involving high-visibility partners and performers from Broadway and film. Provision of national and local resources and information, as well as a series of pre-recorded panels involving experts in social justice, COVID-19, social media, and youth experiences form key production components. The production’s cross-sectoral impact is highlighted in part by its earning of a nomination for America’s oldest theatrical honors and its winning of top NASPA Counseling, Health, and Wellness honors.
  3. Academia: Promoting healthier, more inclusive university settings remains an emphasis of The Manic Monologues-related programming. In addition to general cross-campus efforts to promote healthier campus communities (e.g., Stanford University, Prince George’s Community College, Princeton University, Ferris State University productions), the play is used in medical schools (e.g., Zucker School of Medicine production by physicians and medical students; virtual programming for Stanford Medicine and Mayo Clinic), as a resource for information on mental health and stigma (e.g., MIT Career Advising & Professional Development, University of South Florida St. Petersburg Wellness Center, and various programs at Princeton University), and as curriculum material for storytelling and advocacy (e.g., University of Florida’s general education curriculum, Australia-based Orygen’s Global Youth Mental Health Advocacy Fellowship).

A Call to Action

Even prior to COVID-19, mental health obstacles burdened individuals and the workforce: median age of onset for mental health disorders was just 18, some 20% of the working population faced mental health challenges at any time, and global economic output losses of $2.5–8.5 trillion resulted from mental, neurological, and substance use disorders (losses projected to double by 2030). Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically worsened the mental health crisis, and pandemic-related impacts are predicted to last far into the future. The mental health crisis is already labeled by some as the next global pandemic.

In addressing this crisis, a whole-society approach is critical. A cross-sectoral, cross-disciplinary confluence of forces is needed: law and policy reform and treatment of mental health as a human right and sustainable development goal, improvement and amelioration of globally disrupted mental health services, financing by government and philanthropists to address historic lack of investment in mental health, research and innovation in treatment and prevention as well as evidence-based public health practice, improved education and awareness campaigns, and critically, the collaborative inclusion of lived experience/peer/consumer/survivor perspectives. Crucially, destigmatizing mental health and illness must be a central tenet of a successful whole-society approach to the mental health crisis.

At the heart of the motivation for The Manic Monologues is inclusive conversation, community, and speaking out for the improvement of the health and well-being of all. As the world grapples with the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the greatly exacerbated global mental health crisis, cross-sectoral and cross-disciplinary approaches to promoting healthier and more inclusive workplaces and communities will be more important than ever. We can all play a part in joining in conversation, speaking out, and advocating for the rights of all members of our global community.

Dr. Zachary Florentino Murguía Burton co-founded and leads The Manic Monologues, an organization dedicated to eradicating stigma surrounding mental illness. 

The Petrie-Flom Center Staff

The Petrie-Flom Center staff often posts updates, announcements, and guests posts on behalf of others.

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