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Originally published October 28, 2009 at 12:07 AM | Page modified October 28, 2009 at 1:05 PM

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Drama-therapy program helps mental patients work toward healing

Forensic patients at one of the state's mental hospitals benefit from a relatively new and highly acclaimed drama-therapy program in which they can "act out" their dreams, hopes and fears, while learning to cooperate and compromise. At the end of the day, they say, their work encourages fellow patients and family members who can see them "not as an illness, but as people trying to get better."

Seattle Times staff reporter

LAKEWOOD, Pierce County —

To warm up, the actors grab imaginary musical instruments and march around the hallways, making their own music and keeping their own time.

Next, they pretend they're trying to run with chewing gum stuck to the soles of their shoes. Two actors then grab different books and read back and forth from random pages until everyone is laughing and it almost makes sense.

The drama-therapy class at Western State Hospital has officially begun.

The one-of-a-kind program has brought a unique method of therapy to forensic patients at the mental hospital, people who have been deemed criminally insane or incompetent to stand trial.

The focus of drama therapy isn't on the crimes committed by the participants — which range from burglary to homicide — but on working toward recovery by creating an original piece of theater together.

"This gives people a common purpose and a reason to move in each other's spaces, to start to feel comfortable working physically near someone," said Lori Yates, the only registered drama therapist employed at the state's three mental hospitals. "It gives people a safe place to practice their people skills."

Last month, another alternative type of therapy came under fire when Phillip Arnold Paul slipped away from Eastern State Hospital staff during an outing to a Spokane fair. Paul, who was committed to Eastern after being found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1987 slaying of a woman, walked away from the therapeutic field trip and was at large for three days before he was arrested more than 100 miles away.

In the outrage that followed, the director of the hospital resigned and field trips at the state's mental hospitals were suspended pending a state investigation, due Dec. 1.

Critics said Paul should never have been outside the hospital's walls, but mental-health advocates say alternatives to traditional therapy, including field trips, can be important tools to recovery.

"A core part of recovery is developing meaning in life outside of one's mental illness," said Perry Wien, a professor at the University of Washington School of Social Work.

Besides, said a drama-therapy participant and mental patient named Peter, "We are not all 'insane killers' or 'escapees.' "

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'Outcomes are outstanding'

At one recent rehearsal, the drama-therapy troupe worked on a segue from the opening of their musical play, "Tic Toc" — in which the actors form a living timepiece — into an introduction of their characters and the dilemmas they each face.

Peter, whose character has a rare blood disorder and only a short time to live, believes the audience should see the doctor delivering his diagnosis.

Dan thinks a shadowy dream scene, in which he tosses and flails on the floor, may be the best way to show that his character's childhood was fraught with terror and abuse.

Syed's character is a Wall Street investor with a tortured conscience. He wants the audience to see his bosses giving him an ultimatum.

There are few disagreements as actors try to incorporate one another's ideas.

If there's any "grading" of the participants, it's based on how helpful people are to each other, said Yates.

As a former patient in a mental institution herself, Yates, 45, knew how much music and drama therapy helped in her recovery.

After her release from Wichita State Hospital in Texas, she attended Midwestern State University and earned her master's degree in social work at the University of Texas-Arlington.

She became a registered drama therapist after training at Kansas State University.

Hospital administrators at Western initially hired Yates as a social worker. They subsequently invited her to develop and facilitate alternative therapies, including drama therapy, which costs the state no additional funds to provide.

Drama therapy is the use of theater techniques to facilitate personal growth and recovery, most often in hospitals, schools, mental-health centers and prisons. It's viewed as a way for participants to explore themselves, achieve catharsis and practice healthy interactions.

It's especially helpful, Yates said, to people who need help defining acceptable physical boundaries. "A lot of times, after an incident, you'll ask someone what happened and they'll tell you somebody got in their space," she said.

At Western State, forensic patients' participation in drama therapy is voluntary, and anyone who has shown a commitment to treatment can join.

"The outcomes are outstanding," said Stephanie Kay Lane, director of the state's office of consumer affairs for the Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, part of the Department of Social and Health Services, which oversees the state's mental hospitals.

The success of mental-health treatment can be hard to measure, Lane said, but drama-therapy participants overwhelmingly report the therapy is helpful to their self-esteem and self-awareness, key elements in their ability to recognize and stave off anti-social or dangerous behaviors.

Lane said drama therapy can work particularly well for people who have not responded to traditional therapy, such as medications and behavioral, occupational and group therapy.

"Art engages a different part of the brain that is often ignored in traditional intervention, and it explores what happened to you instead of what's wrong with you," said Lane.

Karen Meyers, a psychology associate at Western State Hospital who also acts with the troupe, said, "Trust-building is the key. People learn how to become helpers and that becomes a coping skill."

Learning to collaborate

Because of federal privacy laws and the hospital's strict policy on patient anonymity, the full names of the patients, their diagnoses and the crimes they are accused of committing were not disclosed. Additionally, hospital administrators asked the actors to wear masks when a Times photographer was present.

They spoke openly, however, about the stigma of their illness, their experiences in the institution and their reasons for participating in the acting troupe they've dubbed "Lavender Sox."

The current four members of the troupe are eager to point out that three of the six participants in last year's production, "It's Daylight Somewhere in the World," have been transferred from Western State to halfway houses and other less-restrictive environments.

Peter, 44, says acting has taught him how to defuse tensions and recognize triggers that can set off his illness.

"It's been a big thing for me to learn to collaborate as a team," said Peter, who has been learning to manage his mental illness for more than a decade.

"It used to be all about me. I wanted to look good," he said. "This has helped me realize how important it is to work as a team, to help others. If there's infighting and jealousy, it's not as much fun."

Brian, an originally wary newcomer to the group, has blossomed as he's composed the musical score and developed his character as an aging rocker.

"He's come out of his shell," said Yates.

Dan, 47, has been at the hospital for more than 20 years and hopes that he may soon be released.

His character in "Tic Toc" is a man named Francis who suffers from having what is perceived to be "a girl's name" and being forced to "grow up too fast."

As his character battles his demons, Dan also fights his own:

"I probably could have gotten out of here sooner, but I kept shooting myself in the foot. I think I unconsciously knew that I needed help."

According to Wien, the UW professor, as many as 25 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with serious mental illness at some point in their lives. Of those, perhaps 75 percent can recover enough to live "meaningful and significant lives outside of an institution."

Yet Yates recalls her early years of recovery when she was told she could not attend seminary, could not be a teacher and would never be accepted as a therapist in the mental-health system because of her illness.

"Those early days in my career taught me to toughen up, and fight hard to reduce stigma," she said.

Syed, 27, who had just finished college and was living with his family when he was overcome by his illness, describes the troupe as "stigma busters."

He explains that he, like many others at the hospital, had no criminal history before he became ill.

"Our illness made us do things that were out of character for us," he said.

Still, shame will prevent him from inviting his mother to the play.

"I would never want her to see me here," he said.

The others feel differently.

"I want my family to see that I'm a productive person," said Peter.

"We are not just a diagnosis or an illness," added Dan. "We are people, people who are trying to get better."

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

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