Your chapter probably begins the academic year in the same way that our chapter does, with the offi cers brainstorming possible activities and setting goals. Last year, we were doing this planning process—pulling out our "tried and true” ideas while simultaneously attempting to think outside the box—when I received an e-mail from Josh Rivedal. Josh described a one-person show he developed in conjunction with Baruch College and off ered to perform for interested Psi Chi chapters. I almost deleted the e-mail, but I am so glad that I did not.
Our chapter sponsored Josh’s performance in spring 2012. Almost 200 students across campus gathered in the student center for a 50-minute show that literally made us laugh and cry throughout. Josh played multiple characters, bringing each to life in a unique way, and revealed his complicated relationship with his father who died by suicide. Following the performance, Josh spoke with us about suicide prevention and willingly answered very personal questions about the impact of suicide on survivors and communities. The total production lasted about 75 minutes, and the audience’s attention never waned.
After watching the audience respond to Josh’s show in such a positive way, I could not believe that just a few months earlier, I had almost banished Josh to my junk mail folder. The words he used in that initial e-mail could not convey the power of his performance. The Gospel According to Josh was education and entertainment at its best. I asked Josh if he would sit down for an interview in the hopes that other Psi Chi chapters would not accidentally miss out on this opportunity.
Josh, thanks for your willingness to be interviewed today.
My pleasure, Merry. I never pass up the chance to talk, and I had such a great time working with you at Winthrop University this past spring. It is always nice speaking with you.
What inspired you to create The Gospel According to Josh?
My initial inspiration to create The Gospel According to Josh was my desire to simply write a play in which I could star. After some early success, my acting career was on life support back in 2009, and my writing career was not doing much better. I saw people like Whoopi Goldberg, Camryn Manheim, and John Leguizamo who created solo shows for themselves and achieved some wonderful career success after performing their one person shows.
I started writing The Gospel According to Josh right after my dad took his life in 2009, and I had no idea what direction I was going with it. But it quickly turned into an autobiographical comedy that details the strained relationship I had with my dad and all of the quirky and awkward things I went through to go into show business—things like starring on an episode of the Maury Povich Show where I had to pretend to date a 450-pound woman, auditioning for a creepy film director in the middle of a forest in New Jersey, and accidentally costarring on a reality TV show that featured Erik Estrada from TV’s CHiPS. However, the show does take a poignant turn at the end when I find out in the play that my dad killed himself. It is a real portrayal of how someone has to deal with emotional repercussions when one of their loved ones dies by suicide. And I deal with the topic of suicide in a sensitive and non-sensationalist manner.
After producing the show in New York and Philadelphia, and shortly thereafter going through my own bout of clinical depression and a near suicide attempt, it dawned on me that I can use this show to start helping people. I can help people like myself and like my father who did not speak out and ask for help because of the stigma surrounding talking about and getting help for suicide and mental health issues. It is pretty incredible that from my initial desire to revive my acting career came a play that has transformed into something that is able to help tens of thousands of students all across the world.
At first, we thought you might be offering to do a religious presentation on our campus, because of your play’s title. How did you come up with the title, The Gospel According to Josh?
That’s a great question and one that I get all the time. My dad happened to be a religious man, and his beliefs affected his persona, how I wrote his character in the play, and how I portray him as an actor. I do not make fun of his beliefs, and I do not promote them either. They are just part of the story. If my dad was a fisherman, then I’m sure the title would have Tilapia in it or something. "Gospel” is also a bit of a double entendre. It means "good news,” and my good news is that suicide is preventable, and any and all of us can get help for it.
What made you reach out to Psi Chi as an avenue to get your production to college campuses?
The issue of suicide is one that affects a large number of college students (it is the second leading cause of death for 18- to –24-yearolds), so I looked into college clubs and organizations whose success was driven by its students. After investigating www.psichi. org, I realized that Psi Chi was a natural fit. I saw that Psi Chi was founded with the purpose of "advancing the science of psychology,” and I know that mental illnesses and suicide prevention research are aspects of psychological science that need a lot more advancement and funding.
Upon further research, I also read that one of Psi Chi’s major goals is to "nourish and stimulate professional growth through programs designed to augment and enhance the regular curriculum.” The Gospel According to Josh seemed like a perfect vehicle for chapters to accomplish this goal. Because Psi Chi officers are known for their leadership abilities, they seemed like an ideal resource to utilize for putting together a social advocacy event.
How did you first link up with the Psi Chi chapter at Baruch College?
I was able to first link up with the Baruch College Psi Chi chapter through a gentleman, Dr. David Sitt, who works in the Department of Psychology at Baruch College and is also the faculty advisor for Psi Chi. I had initially sent out some very discombobulated pitch e-mails to psychology professors all across the United States that outlined my ideas on the way I wanted to develop a program that combined The Gospel According to Josh with education on suicide prevention and mental wellness.
Not many people were responding. After about a month of revising my pitch e-mail and resending, Dr. Sitt called me with questions about my idea of pairing live theatre with suicide prevention education. After a few meetings with Dr. Sitt and his colleague, Professor Sapolsky, they decided to green-light the project and have the Baruch Chapter of Psi Chi and the Baruch Department of Psychology sponsor the premiere of The Gospel According to Josh with suicide prevention and mental wellness education.
What happened after this initial performance?
I am very fortunate to have gotten the opportunity from Dr. Sitt and the Baruch College chapter of Psi Chi to do this work because it has grown exponentially. In the 2011–12 school year, I was able to go to more than 20 schools across the country and present my work—places like Arizona State University; University of Nevada, Reno; Yeshiva University; and Florida Memorial University. I have also presented The Gospel According to Josh on high school and middle school campuses and have worked with the Hawaii Department of Education. I’ve been fortunate to have my audiences consist of low-income and at-risk-youth, Native Americans, faith and nonfaith based schools, and people ages 8 to 68. It is pretty amazing to be able to reach such a wide demographic of people in such a positive way.
What type of feedback have you gotten from your production?
I have gotten some tremendous feedback from my production and suicide prevention work. I’ve received e-mails from some very brave young people who have lost loved ones to suicide or have made their own attempts and are working on getting help for their suicide ideations. In some schools, I have actually witnessed students making appointments to see their school psychologist after my show. Others have told me that I am promoting healing in their family after they’ve lost a loved one to suicide. I have been able to hug students and educators who have felt comfortable sharing their stories of suicide attempts. People have told me that I am helping them cope with their mental health issues or the way they’re dealing with having lost a friend or family member to suicide. One young lady even quoted something I said verbatim and mentioned in her e-mail to a counselor that what I said was the reason she was getting help. Basically, this is the best and most fulfilling work I have ever done. I’m able to be a working artist while helping people deal with their issues and stay alive.
What do you think your father would think about your work on behalf of suicide prevention?
We did not have the best relationship when he was alive, but I think he would be happy and proud of the work I am doing. I’m doing it for him and for me. He grew up in a time when it was not okay to talk about how you feel or get help if you need it. But I am working to change that, and I think he is able to rest a little more peacefully knowing, that, in some way, his death and my work may help prevent other people from ever having to go through the emotional and physical pain he experienced when he took his life.
What does a Psi Chi chapter need to do to bring this type of event to its campus?
There are a variety of ways you can bring an event to your campus. For example, you can pair the event with a psychology class on mental disorders, such as Abnormal Psychology. Ninety percent of suicides are the result of an untreated mental health issue like clinical depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and bipolar disorder.
You can also offer to partner with the counseling center, student government, the psychology department, social work department, residence life, Greek organizations, or all of the above. Good times of year to bring events like this to your campus are