Staging Mental Health

Since 2016, DE-CRUIT has used Shakespeare to help military veterans work through their war trauma and adjustment back to civilian life.

three people rehearse for their upcoming production

Read Time: 4 minutes


This is part one of a four-part series – The Art of Promoting Health – examining art’s role in the treatment of mental illness and the promotion of public health.

William Shakespeare wrote thirty-seven plays on topics ranging from love, loss, and miscommunication, to war. DE-CRUIT, a community-based program, uses Shakespeare to help military veterans with their war trauma and their adjustment back to civilian life, “when the hurly-burly’s done; when the battle is lost and won.” Since its conception in 2016, DE-CRUIT serves all veterans and now offers specialized services for women who experience sexual trauma while serving.

The United States Armed Services has a complicated history with women who are soldiers. Women started serving in the U.S. military before they were legally allowed to join. Some women signed up as nurses or spies during the two world wars. Then, in 1948, President Truman signed the Women’s Armed Service Integration Act, granting admission in non-combat roles. Seventy-five years later, women can serve in almost any military role. But nearly 40% of women in the military report experiencing a form of sexual harassment or assault—10 times the rate of men.

Military sexual trauma is defined as sexual assault or harassment during active duty. Examples include sexual coercion, inappropriate touching, lewd remarks or sexual jokes, repeated unwanted advances, and rape. Women veterans who experience sexual assault are 9 times more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder than other female soldiers.

DE-CRUIT introduces participants to Shakespeare’s plays, teaches theatrical performance techniques, and provides stories (the plays) of war and the emotional lives of soldiers to assist with coping and working through trauma. This organization developed theater into a treatment for post-traumatic stress in veterans by teaching grounding, breathing, coping, and processing techniques to assist in “de-cruiting” veterans from the military. It may have special benefits for women in service who experience excessive stress from the hyper-masculine environment of the military.

Alisha Ali and her DE-CRUIT colleagues evaluated the therapeutic benefits of Shakespearean theater for military women who have experienced sexual trauma. Women who receive dramatic therapy — a form of psychotherapy that uses dramatic and theatric techniques for therapeutic processing — also connect to broader socio-political movements like #MeToo. Examples of drama therapy techniques include acting out a story, writing and delivering a monologue, and miming and movement activities.

DE-CRUIT’s intervention gives survivors of military sexual trauma opportunities to voice their experiences, build support systems, and connect to local and national organizations focused on activism. Ali and colleagues explain that because veterans who experience sexual trauma often remain silent, they need a space where they can process their emotions and experiences. Through theatrical performance, DE-CRUIT encourages participants to speak out against injustice and join fights for better treatment of women.

Ali and team found that women veterans often feel excluded from both military narratives and civilian female spaces. Participants mentioned not feeling like war heroes, something typically ascribed to men. As well, many also mentioned not feeling accepted in primarily-women spaces in society, like #MeToo campaigns, that were fighting for justice. Some mentioned feelings of loneliness, neither having a space to cope with their sexual traumas and fight for fairness in civil society nor being represented as strong members of the military in advertisements and campaigns.

Through learning and delivering Shakespeare’s monologues, women can bond with fellow survivors and veterans, learn techniques for regulating their emotions, and write Shakespearean-style narratives about their experiences with military sexual trauma. Further, participants were able to connect and find community through DE-CRUIT, an important part of coping and processing traumas—something many participants mentioned lacking outside of DE-CRUIT.

Shakespeare wrote, “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up o-er wrought heart and bids it break.” This line from MacBeth reminds us that we must work through our traumas, or they will work through us.

Photo via Getty Images