Anchorage students spark mental health conversations through personal stories in upcoming show

A screenshot of a zoom video call
The Mental Health Advocacy Through Storytelling cohort on a Zoom call. The students — five performers and three facilitators are putting together a live show where the storytellers share narratives they’ve developed to talk about their experiences with mental health. (MHATS)

A group of high school students in Anchorage have spent the semester writing and developing personal stories that explore their mental health experiences.

They’re part of a student-run organization working to de-stigmatize and raise awareness about mental health through storytelling.

Listen to this story:

The group is called MHATS, or Mental Health Advocacy Through Storytelling. It was created and is run by high school students across the district.

For the past ten weeks, a cohort of five girls have been writing, tweaking and practicing their stories. They have mixed emotions about sharing them with the community.

“Because the whole beginning half of my story, no one knew about before I started developing my story,” said Ceyda Ertekin, a junior at West High School. “So it’s going to be interesting to see how I’m going to react when I’m telling it, and then to see how people are going to react to it.”

This will be Ertekin’s first time performing her story.

But MHATS has been around since 2019. This will be the organization’s fourth show.

Interested students apply and interview with group leaders, who are also students. They spend 10 weeks writing and editing their stories, giving each other feedback in the form of “glows,” which are things that went well, and “grows,” which are areas of improvement.

Their stories range from experiences with cancer and eating disorders to dealing with heartbreak and seeking counseling.

They’re talking about serious and personal topics in front of friends, family, and strangers. The girls said that’s the point.

Meg Barnlund, a senior at Eagle River High School, said going to counseling helped change her perspective on mental health.

“I used to think that if you’re depressed, it meant you were suicidal. And if you had anxiety, then that meant that you were crazy,” Barnlund said. “I don’t want other people to think the same way that I used to, and I want them to be able to see it for what it actually is. It’s workable and the more you talk about it the easier it gets.”

MHATS co-founder Natalie Fraser described the live show as an “experiment in emotional vulnerability.” Fraser, who is now a first-year student at Swarthmore College, said her favorite part is listening to the conversations that happen right after the show, sparked by the stories that were told.

“Telling a story is weird because you’re doing it for you. It’s this emotionally transformative thing to do the development and then tell [the story],” Fraser said. “But it’s also really important to the people who hear it.”

Claire Rhyneer is a senior at West High School who’s performed before. She said she’s experienced that transformation herself.

“What was great about my story was I really wanted people to hear it, because I feel like they didn’t know me, if they didn’t hear it,” Rhyneer said. “It felt so relieving that they knew this other side of me, and to have so many of my peers and my teachers — which is terrifying, but also super relieving — know that’s who I am and they know where I came from.”

The show follows a pandemic performance format. It’s drive-in style at Chilkoot Charlie’s in Anchorage. Their performances will be broadcast to car radios in the parking lot.

Due to weather, the planned live show for last weekend was postponed. Follow the MHATS website for information about a new show date and time.

Reach reporter Mayowa Aina at or 907.744.2536

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