Kaiser Permanente Northern California’s Educational Theatre is connecting a record number of student audience members to adults for help. Pictured, left to right, actor-educators Antonette Bracks and Jamar Bajala.
Jared Randolph still recalls his feelings the first time he saw Nightmare on Puberty St. in 1991 as an eighth-grader at Sequoia Elementary School in Pleasant Hill, California.
“The show starts with a number called ‘Am I Normal?’” said Randolph, an 18-year veteran of the group who started acting in the show in 2000 and is now its program coordinator. “The taboo was lifted and all these things I had been thinking about were now being addressed in front of the whole student body.”
One goal of the show, performed by Kaiser Permanente Northern California Educational Theatre (KPET) is to help middle school students connect with a trusted adult for mental health care. Resisting negative peer pressure and normalizing the puberty experience are also integral to the show.
Last year Nightmare on Puberty St. actor-educators and those from 2 other KPET programs, Resilience Squad and Peace Signs, personally connected 314 students to trusted adults and school counselors for mental health services, up from 223 in 2017, a 39 percent increase. The numbers rose sharply after the post-show discussion with students changed from an open-ended format to a guided session about depression, suicide, abuse, sexual assault, and other issues, Randolph said.
Each week last year the show “bridged” an average of 9 high-risk students to immediate intervention, up from 5 a week in 2017. The show also refers students to the California Youth Crisis Line, which received 39 calls last year from students who saw it.
‘We Call Out Abuse, Depression’
“We call out abuse and say, ‘If this is happening, you need help,’” said Randolph, who like all the other actor-educators received extensive on-the-job training from doctors, psychologists, nutritionists, and other medical experts before hitting the stage. “We call out depression, and we are very direct in saying that if someone is in danger or hurting themselves, we are going to help you.”
During those conversations after the show, there is a consistent need for immediate help, such as a referral to child protective services, so the actor-educators request that a school counselor be in the room.
“In some of these cases, school staff informed us that they had previously been unaware of the child’s issue,” said Mark Punzal, also a program coordinator with the theatre.
Punzal said out of KPET’s 4 current programs, Nightmare on Puberty St. garners most of the referrals for mental health services.
“I think it’s because the content brings out a lot of these issues,” Punzal said. “We discuss puberty, adolescent development, first thoughts of sexual attraction, peer pressure, depression, and thoughts of suicide.”
Since KPET started 33 years ago, 7 million students and adults have seen its shows and attended its workshops, an average of 212,000 a year. The group currently has a staff of 35, including 20 full-time actors whose shows are seen every day in Northern California. Scripts are continuously updated by medical professionals, the actors, parents, and educators, all with the aim of providing preventive physical and mental health education and support.
Twenty-eight years after first seeing Nightmare on Puberty St. as an eighth-grader and now as a father of a 12-year-old son, Randolph said he can easily relate to the themes it highlights and to its enduring success.
“The content changes over the years, but the universal feelings around awkwardness of puberty stay the same,” Randolph said. “And the title just conveys so much.”