In a recently published article, faculty and staff in the UF Center for Arts in Medicine and UF College of Education present best practices for utilizing theatrical arts to reduce social isolation and improve health outcomes for LGBTQ+ youth.
Jeffrey Pufahl, research assistant professor at the Center for Arts in Medicine, emphasizes that LGBTQ+ communities face a lot of barriers and discrimination in society.
“These barriers lead to health outcomes that include increased anxiety, increased depression, and, especially for youth, increased suicidality,” he says.
In a recent report by the Trevor Project—the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning young people—42 percent of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.
To offer resources for the local community, Pufahl partnered with the UF Health Youth Gender Clinic in 2017 to start Theatre Connect, a theatre group for LGBTQ+ teenagers in the Gainesville area.
The program is presented in seasons—typically every spring, summer, and fall—where participants engage in a variety of activities that combine games and exercises with storytelling and discussion to build a safe, friendly, and creative community.
The theatre-based activities emphasize play and skill-building rather than LGBTQ+ topics, according to Camilo Reina Munoz, co-director of Theatre Connect and an alumnus of the UF Master of Arts in Arts in Medicine program.
“The games help us to focus on the participants as just being kids and building social connections,” Reina Munoz says. “We work on gaining confidence, taking risks, putting on characters, thinking off the top of your head, getting used to the sound of your own voice and using it in new ways.”
One of the most popular activities they play is called “emotional taxi.” The improvisational game involves one player performing the role of a taxi driver while others act as passengers whose characters are informed by a specific emotion. As each passenger comes into the cab, they take on their character’s emotion.
“The agility needed to take on different emotions challenges actors in a really fun way,” Pufahl says, “and this kind of activity opens up realms of expression that participants might not have on a day-to-day basis in their lives.”
While LGBTQ+ topics arise naturally as part of the participants’ identities and lived experiences, Reina Munoz says he and other facilitators are careful not to invite participants to process trauma or stress through the activities.
This unique “theatre-first” approach differentiates Theatre Connect from drama therapies and support groups. Still, Reina Munoz says it’s important to have mental health professionals as partners in the program. Counselors are always present to co-facilitate activities and are available to provide mental health first-aid, confidential on-demand counseling, and referrals as needed.
“It was groundbreaking at the time we started Theatre Connect,” Reina Munoz says. “We couldn’t find a lot of literature demonstrating this kind of partnership, so we knew we really struck on something special.”
Theatre Connect, which is co-hosted by UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine, has presented eleven seasons since its inception and now partners with Dr. Hannah Bayne and the UF College of Education Mental Health Counselor Training program.
Bayne, assistant professor in the School of Human Development and Organizational Studies in Education, originally reached out to Pufahl seeking opportunities to integrate theatre into counselor training. She was interested in engaging counselors in improvisation exercises and using actors to roleplay as clients. In her conversations with Pufahl, she learned about Theatre Connect and begged to be a part of it.
As a mental health professional, Bayne praises Theatre Connect’s ability to create a safe space for participants to be themselves. While research shows increased rates of suicidality, anxiety, and depression among LGBTQ+ youth, Bayne attributes these to external factors, something that the program offers an escape from.
“These statistics associated with folks who hold LGBTQ+ identities are true, but they are true because folks are being victims of oppression, of discrimination, of bias, and that’s what is creating the symptomology,” she says. “It’s not something internal. It’s something external. What I love about Theatre Connect is it offers a space that’s affirming, a space for youth to come and just be youth.”
During rehearsals, Bayne or another mental health counselor is always present, but their role isn’t like their traditional clinical practice. Instead, they apply their expertise to attend to the energy of the room and observe behaviors. If they notice participants in a state of distress, they can offer on-site counseling and refer them to mental health resources.
“This may not be drama therapy or targeted interventions for specific therapeutic purposes,” Bayne says, “but I think that there are therapeutic gains happening.”
Bayne also plays a crucial role in crafting the curriculum with Reina Munoz and Pufahl. The team meets after every rehearsal to debrief on group dynamics, levels of enthusiasm and participation, and social connectedness.
The trio recently published an article in a first-ever arts in health supplement of Health Promotion Practice, a peer-reviewed journal by the Society for Public Health Education. In the article, they stress the value of having theatre professionals, mental health counselors, and local LGBTQ+ organizations as partners.
Pufahl says this points to work happening across the Center for Arts in Medicine in defining arts in health as a field of research and practice.
“I think what we’re really developing in this program is how to create partnerships that can integrate the arts more fully into health practice,” he says. “Social cohesion is one of the determinants of health that the arts are really good at addressing, and that’s what we find is a really wonderful outcome of Theatre Connect.”
Bayne finds Theatre Connect offers an alternative intervention to traditional clinical practice. In her line of work, Bayne might sit with a client struggling with social anxiety and focus on discussing the roots of anxiety and a plan for tackling it. But in Theatre Connect, participants are learning to explore emotion through performance and receiving positive feedback for doing so.
“That’s work towards addressing social anxiety, but it doesn’t feel like work because it’s fun,” Bayne says. “Both interventions have their place, but I see Theatre Connect like swimming in the Florida heat. It’s work and you’re sweating, but you don’t feel like you’re sweating.”
Theatre Connect is supported by the Bradley S. and Marta E. Pollitt family, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, Satchel's Pizza, and UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine.