When Amber Tither was just 13 - seized by mental illness - her identity shattered into a million pieces, the shards cutting into her self-esteem.
Hiding her feelings out of shame, she took solace in theatre, masquerading in its masks. But at university - transferring her feelings from head to page - she discovered the validating power of scriptwriting.
“I couldn’t leave it there. I had to do something to help other young people reach out,” she said.
It was the catalyst for Pieces of Me, a group at Burnley Youth Theatre for ages 11 to 18, which devises plays exploring and raising awareness of mental illness.
“I want to normalise it. You need a platform to talk about it to make it less frightening. At that age, your problems can feel like the end of the world so the group provides reassurance that it’s not. This room is a safe space and offers an escape from the real world.”
As a result, the members have formed strong bonds and taken each other under their wings.
“The key rule is to listen to each other. It’s easy to close yourself off from mental illness if you don’t suffer from it but Burnley’s a small town and it’s more widespread here than we realise.”
The play explores the two faces of mental illness - the statistics and the personal, human element - and uses physical theatre to translate difficult and complex emotions into clear images. After all, mental illness morphs like a chameleon, slipping behind an endless collection of masks. It’s something Mollie Moorby (17) knows all too well.
“A person might be smiling,” she said, “but you never know what they’re going through. Fortunately, because everyone here is passionate and supportive, I can 100% be myself and put my ideas forward.”
As Alicia Weston-Iuiz (12) noted, we must shatter the stigma arising from the complexity of mental illness.
“As there isn’t much information out there for young people,” she said, “jokes are made out of it. But it’s real and serious and can happen to anyone at any time. People don’t know what it is and are scared to talk about it. The show explains what it’s really like.”
Holly Clough (14) agreed.
“It’s a gateway for getting the word out,” she said.
“Mental health is repressed and awareness at school ebbs and flows so we’re hoping to open eyes to the lesser well-known disorders, like bipolar and schizophrenia.
“Rather than hammering people with facts, we’re showing them how it really feels, how mundane it is, how it comes in and out of your life, and that it’s not black-and-white.
And in the end, one clear yet urgent fact shines through.
“We need to talk about it over and over,” Holly said, “until it’s no longer stigmatised.”
To learn more, visit www.burnleyyouththeatre.org
The show will be staged on Wednesday, August 2nd at 7-30pm at Burnley Arts Centre, Queen’s Park Road.