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This Kansas City nurse is taking to the theater to address mental health stigmas

Next to Normal play directing
University of Kansas Health System
Through the award-winning play "Next to Normal," behavioral health nurse Tiffany Schweigert hopes to generate more conversation in Kansas City about shared mental health struggles.

A nurse at the University of Kansas Health System is helping to produce a Tony Award-winning play in Johnson County that spotlights the nation's growing mental health crisis.

Ten years ago, Tiffany Schweigert directed and produced the 2008 American rock musical "Next to Normal" in Kansas City.

Schweigert had not considered a career in health care, but the Tony Award-winning play written by Brian Yorkey struck a chord that ended up changing the course of her life. The story revolves around a mother who struggles with bipolar disorder and how the worsening illness affects her family.

Now a behavioral health nurse at the University of Kansas Health System, Schweigert is bringing the play back to Kansas City to create a conversation around the themes of "Next to Normal," including grief, depression, drug abuse and modern psychiatric practices.

“With the pandemic being so forefront in everyone’s mind, now we’re getting the other side of what all that entails,” Schweigert said at a KU Health System briefing on Thursday. “I work at Strawberry Hill, where we’re seeing a lot of our patients come in with the after-effects of that on their mental health. I hope that people come and see this performance and see how we all struggle with mental health.”

The play, produced by The Barn Players, runs from Oct. 21 through Oct. 30 at the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center’s Black Box Theatre.

It is no coincidence that Schweigert is putting on the play at a time when 90% of adults say they view mental health as a crisis in the United States, according to a CNN poll. The same poll showed half the respondents said they or a loved one had mental health problems requiring treatment.

Throughout the pandemic, but especially in recent months as more people try to return to pre-COVID-19 routines, Schweigert has noticed more patients who are dealing with the knock-on effects of the last few years on their mental health.

Through "Next to Normal," Schweigert hopes people can find a bit of common ground with characters experiencing similar health dilemmas. For those involved in the production, the musical has certainly done that.

“It’s been a short but intense process talking about not only their character development but just their individual struggles, how they have dealt with their own mental or physical health and how that can relate to their character,” Schweigert said.

For example, lead actress Ashley Young struggles with multiple sclerosis, a potentially debilitating brain and spinal cord disease.

“That’s a chronic illness she has to live with every single day,” Schweigert said. “We want to normalize mental health. It’s just like diabetes or hypertension, where we gotta take our medications every day and something we live with always.”

Lauren Luck, director of the behavioral health program at KU Health System, said at the briefing that much of the stigma surrounding mental health has to do with the fact that mental health conditions are not visible in the same way as other medical conditions.

“We know is that it’s not just in anyone’s head,” Luck said. “There are biological, genetic, hormonal and other neurotropic things that are happening in our brains that we know cause mental illness. It is physical illness. We just can’t see it yet.”

Luck encouraged those struggling with mental or behavioral health issues to reach out to a therapist, friend, family or health care providers.

“If it’s interfering with your daily life, don’t wait until it’s any worse than that,” Luck said. “Let’s get help before it gets bad enough that you feel like there’s so much stigma that you’re too scared to then reach out.”

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
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