After curtain call, panel to explore eating disorders and mental health

After curtain call this Saturday, a GW theater department play will host its first-ever panel featuring mental health experts.

The play, “Vanishing Point,” follows a 19-year-old girl’s struggle with anorexia. A team of professionals will continue to explore the themes of mental health with the audience in a panel setting after the show ends.

Organizers said the theater department could start using panels more often if a serious theme in a play hits close to home for audience members. The theater department has held panels at the end of shows before, the director said, but this panel marks the first time they’ve focused on discussing mental health issues.

Leslie Jacobson, who directed and adapted the play for the stage, said she wanted to host the panel because watching a story about sensitive issues can elicit strong reactions and trigger questions from audience members.

“When you’re so busy living your own life, it is so hard to see clearly what is actually going on,” Jacobson said. “You’re just sort of making it through a day or week, and I think in theater, you have the opportunity to watch and reflect on things in new ways.”

She said the panel would help people work through the issues they might have missed after one viewing, especially since the themes directly affect many college-aged women, who she estimates will largely make up the audience.

Though eating disorders impact all people, the Walden Behavioral Clinic reports that up to 40 percent of female college students experience an eating disorder and 91 percent of female college students have tried dieting. The most common eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia and binge eating.

“I don’t know any young women who doesn’t have a fraught relationship to her body,” Jacobson said. “Young people, very often college-aged, feel like they don’t have any control over their lives and so one way of exerting this control is by not eating.”

The play will run from Oct. 16 to 18, though the panel be held during the last showing Saturday. Jacobson adapted the play from the verse novel of the same name by Jeri Kroll.

The panel will include Jacobson, Kroll, University Counseling Center Director Silvio Weisner, psychologist Tamara Jackson and Katie Duman, the vice president of GW’s eating disorder awareness group SPEAK.

Organizer and junior Marcelene Sutter said the panel is designed to emphasize the idea that no two people experience a play with the same emotions or reactions.

“The nature of the subject I think is very subjective. I think you and I could sit through the play and have totally different perceptions of it, you just never know what is going to hit a nerve for someone,” said Sutter, a presidential scholar in the arts.

Kroll said she noticed young people using social media to create a perfect body image, and wanted to reflect that in her work.

“People are often ashamed of any disorder and won’t talk to anyone and all of the sudden they discover it is much more common and it actually empowers them in a way, thinking well, I am not so odd and obviously there is a way of getting help, even just talking about it,” Kroll said.

Tamara Jackson, another panelist, has specialized in eating disorders and worked in the field for over 15 years in private practice, through research and on Capitol Hill. She said the fear that many young people experience with an eating disorder is that they are alone and different, and they often don’t seek help, and she believes adding a discussion will help people come to terms with themselves.

“A discussion really helps to break the silence because of a lot of young women are suffering because of the stigma and shame around it,” Jackson said.

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