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Milwaukee VA Medical Center


"Pieces" shatters stigma of mental health

The cast of

The cast of "Pieces" after their performance on Oct. 17 at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center. From left to right, Cassondra Gresl, Jason Hillman, Rich Melcher, Emily, Zakrzewski, Sedoria Outlaw, Emily Bennett, DeMar Walker, Chastity Washington, and Mary Neubauer.

By Antony Kamps
Thursday, October 24, 2013

The stigma of a mental health diagnosis may be one reason many veterans don’t seek help.

The theatrical production “Pieces” looks to remove that stigma, while raising awareness on the subject of mental health.

The Oct. 17 theatrical production, “Pieces,” at the Milwaukee VA helped shatter the stigma and encourage those who need it most to get help. More than 200 people attended the stage production where veterans and other actors performed monologues and interpretive dance to express the pains of mental illness and what they did to get better. It was followed by a Q and A session where the actors explained their roles and how they dealt with mental illness issues.

“Pieces” spoke first-hand to the audience about the main mental health issues facing veterans today: post-traumatic stress, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, and suicide. Organizers said the goal was to help people not feel like outcasts by talking about the conditions and explaining they can be treated.

A 2009 study by the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, found more than 36 percent of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Nationally, VA officials said about 28 to 30 percent have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress.

Dorothy McCollum, one of the organizers of “Pieces,” said the number that can’t be determined is how many soldiers live with a mental health disorder, but don’t or refuse to get help.

“Veterans and/or civilians don’t want to be labeled as having a mental illness,” said McCollum, a social worker in the mental health department at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center. “Being labeled with a mental illness brings about internal stigma as well as external stigma.” 

Sedoria Outlaw, who serves in the Army, performed in the show and talked about her struggles, and what the confinement of a straitjacket means to her.

"When I put on that straitjacket, I feel like I am taking on everything (mental health patients) are dealing with,” she tells the audience, pausing as she becomes visibly upset.

“When that jacket comes off,” she continued, “it’s an amazing feeling.”

Outlaw is scheduled to deploy next month.

One audience member came to tell how the show had a personal impact on her.

“This is really moving and powerful for me, as today is the 16th anniversary of my brother’s suicide,” said the audience member. “People just need to know that there are people who will love and miss you, and they just need to talk to someone and get help.”

Brenda Wesley, director of education and outreach at NAMI Greater Milwaukee, said seeking help is part of the path to recovery.

“It’s a way of getting people to discuss the topic,” said Brenda Wesley, director of education and outreach at NAMI Greater Milwaukee. “Mental health is not a topic people like to discuss, unless they see it on TV or in a movie.

“This opens the closet door, and starts the conversation that needs to take place.”

Wesley knows first-hand about dealing with mental health.

“My son is now 35 and was diagnosed at the age of 21 with schizophrenia, which has since changed to schizoaffective and alcohol and other drug abuse issues,” said Wesley.

Wesley saw the need of veterans who are coming home from deployment in need of hearing the message of the production.

“I have family and friends that are or who have served in the armed forces and this is a community that needs to hear the message of recovery,” said Wesley. “Our troops come back changed and no one seems to understand why.

“(I) cannot think of a better way than to use the ARTS to deliver a message that most people refuse to talk about!”

For more information on "Pieces" contact Brenda Wesley at 414-344-0447, or go to For more information on getting you or someone you know help for mental health issues contact the Milwaukee VA Medical Center at 414-384-2000, ext. 42097.


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