As freshmen crowd onto the bleachers in the gym at Tyee High School in SeaTac, it's hard not to imagine boring assemblies where people act out "real problems" that seem to magically go away when someone tells a "trusted adult."
The play "Ghosted" isn't really like that. It features four high schoolers who learn to talk to each other about their struggles.
"We have four humans with complex problems that don't get solved in the play," said playwright Trista Baldwin.
Baldwin, who lives on Vashon Island, is a real playwright, and "Ghosted" is a real play. She was tapped by the Seattle Children's Theatre who has been working with Kaiser Permanente to develop educational theater to be performed in schools.
"Ghosted" begins when Kayla approaches the school counselor's office because she worries her boyfriend, Andre, might be depressed. She runs into Syd, an old friend from elementary school who struggles with panic attacks. They also meet Liam, who is in trouble for vandalizing school property, and whose mother is dealing with addiction.
"It's like I'm under a microscope all the damn time," Andre, played by Charles Wright, tells Kayla during a heated argument. "But maybe I'm not thinking anything. Maybe I'm not feeling anything."
"We all feel things all the time," Kayla, played by Sofia Raquel Sanchez, responds.
"I don't feel anything," Andre concludes. "Just back off."
In addition to depression and anxiety, the play also touches on suicide, race and gender expression. The audience never meets the school counselor in the end. But the four characters form a tentative friendship.
In writing the play, Baldwin worked with the Children's Theatre teen advisory council. She says they helped inform the characters' story and the language of the play. She also worked with mental health experts from Kaiser Permanente.
"One of the things that I learned was this conversation about having community," Baldwin said. "Helping other people, so that when you need help, you can ask for it."
The 35-minute play has been performing at high schools around Western Washington this month, with a few performances still to come. After the performance, students typically participate in a talkback with actors and school counselors to talk about some of the themes of the play.
Showing teens talking to each other in a theatrical way can be effective, said Lennae Varlinsky, a mental health counselor based at Franklin High School in Seattle who works for Kaiser.
"Because they are the best referral source of getting treatment happening," she said. "They are the eyes and ears of all their peers."
Varlinsky said depression and anxiety are at high levels among high school students.
"Kids are just more anxious about their futures and about everything going on in the world, so it's important for us to de-stigmatize," she said.
After the talkback at Tyee High School, ninth-grader Giovani Zarate Ubaldo said he thought the play was motivational, and he liked it because "it actually seemed like you were actually watching TV."
He says he can get nervous talking to adults. And talking to friends also can be hard, even when he knows they're struggling. He hopes he might be able to use the play as a reference when his friends tell him they're not feeling ok.
"I could just talk (to) them about the play and about how I learned about it and how you can, you know, make you feel better," he said.