More than a dozen Billings high school students were recognized Wednesday morning at Montana State University Billings for a series of plays they created and performed to address youth suicide from the perspective of the youth it affects.
"These teenagers have really thought and felt long and hard about the issue of suicide and depression for teens and managed to turn those troubles into a positive difference," said Sarah Keller, chair of the MSUB Theatre and Communications program. "They and their work not only deserve to be honored, but promoted."
The project, called Let's Talk Billings, involves students from Senior, Skyview and West high schools using theater productions and talking sessions to address suicide in the community, with performances held in Billings and Miles City. It is sponsored by the National Institutes of Health General Medical Sciences Division and the Global Health Equity Foundation.
Wednesday's ceremony brought together many of the students who worked on the project, along with organizers and MSUB officials, for a quick ceremony to honor their efforts.
"What makes these plays so powerful is the message of hope and community," said Dezery Sweeper, an MSUB undergraduate and assistant director of Let's Talk Billings. "The plays give the tools for everyone who sees them to be able to speak out."
Standing in a shaded area of MSUB's Peaks to Plains Park, Keller handed each of the students a certificate and thanked them for their work.
Skyview student Mason Walker, 16, said that one of the project's directors recruited him for Let's Talk Billings after meeting him at a powwow. Having dealt with suicide in his family, some of the material hit pretty close to home for him.
"There's some of it where it's gotten really personal for me," Mason said. "But it's helped me cope with it a little better."
Mason said that he hopes viewers have gotten as much out of it as he has.
"It kind of helped me develop my personality and bring myself out," he said. "I used to be pretty quiet, but now not as much. I'm talking to people, but I'm also helping them by talking to them."
Keller and others involved with Let's Talk Billings said that it also has encouraged people to be more open in their discussions about suicide, especially among youth.
"A small corner of the community now knows it is possible to talk about suicide and depression and come out better for it, not worse," she said.
After Wednesday's ceremony, the group planned to travel to Lodge Grass to perform the program for students, marking the first time the show had been performed on a reservation.