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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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In slaying her own mental health dragons, Helene Meyer found a way to help others too


Reflecting on her younger years isn’t always easy for 79-year-old Helene Meyer, especially when she compares them to now. Today, she feels fulfilled. Productive. In the moment. 

As artistic director of Slaying Dragons, a nonprofit whose mission is to end the stigma of mental illness through theater, Meyer has much to be proud of. 

But it wasn’t always that way.

“I feel that my younger years, not due to anything I consciously did, but because of my mental health issues, I didn’t accomplish very much,” Meyer said. “If anything, I hurt the people I loved. Once I was past that point where I could actually function, I started doing a lot of things…I believe every person is placed on Earth for a reason, and that reason hopefully is to be helpful to their fellow man.”

Meyer isn’t exactly sure when her depression and anxiety began, but she remembers strong signs of both as a child. Her father passed away when she was 13, and she suspects that his death contributed to her feeling overly sad and anxious during adolescence.

“I didn’t want to go to school, I didn’t feel good about myself,” she said recently over coffee. “Even though I took singing and dancing lessons, I never had any confidence in myself. There was a vocal teacher in St. Louis, Irene Chambers, who was considered the top teacher, and she took me on as a student. I took three lessons from her and decided I wasn’t good enough to be her student, so I stopped going.”

Meyer, who attends Kol Rinah, graduated from University City High School and Washington University, with a degree in education, despite always feeling anxious and stressed. 

During her first marriage, she was in “deep depression” much of the time. Her second marriage didn’t fare much better and ended in divorce. Nevertheless, she had three children to care for and a promising career as a teacher, though both proved to be a challenge because of her mental and emotional problems.

“One day,” Meyer said, “I walked out of the apartment, the kids had already gone to school. I got into my car and said, ‘I can’t go back home and be like this, and I can’t go to work.’ I had a good job. I was working at Commerce Bank. I had taken a break from teaching because I didn’t want to do all the grading and preparing. I wanted to spend more time with my kids.

“Then I found myself driving to what was Mercy Hospital and checking myself in.”

She spent 2weeks at Mercy after being diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder and was put on medication. The year was 1987. 

“It took me to the year 2000 to actually get on my feet and do what I am doing today,” she said, adding that she was hospitalized three times for depression and had to move with her children seven times because of money woes. “I was working but I lost every job I had because I didn’t go. I would get so anxious in the morning that I was going to make mistakes, so I’d call in sick. I missed so many days they would have no choice but to let me go.”

What eventually set Meyer on a forward path was finding the right doctors and medication. The psychiatrist at Mercy put her on Xanax. The problem was he never took her off.

“Part of my problem in not being able to keep a job was that I was experiencing withdrawal from Xanax in the morning,” she said. “When I went to BJC Behavioral Health in South County, they were a blessing. The psychiatrist looked at my chart and asked why I was on (Xanax) for 12 years. He said I wasn’t supposed to be on it for more than six months. They had to hospitalize me for addiction, and I ended up there for 2weeks. I still have to take medicine, but not Xanax.”

Meyer says she really isn’t sure when the turning point came, but she “began to feel safer in terms of being able to live a life” with the support of BJC Behavioral.

“It was like, I am going to do this,” she remembered. “I’ve got a real support system, and I felt I will be able to stand on my own two feet.”

Feeling more confident and self-assured, she decided to write a book based on her experiences with depression and anxiety. 

“I didn’t want other people to go through what I went through,” Meyer said. “Everything in the book happened to me, but I gave the characters different names.”

Helene Meyer (left) started Slaying Dragons, a nonprofit that performs plays and staged readings focused on mental health issues.

Friends then encouraged Meyer to turn the book into a play, which she did. She had performed in community theater productions over the years and always felt an affinity for acting and directing.

Her play, “Voices of Depression,” features a series of vignettes from various points of view, including an adult child who is enraged by her mother and felt abandoned because of her mom’s mental illness. 

Tom Moore, an amateur actor who is retired from AT&T, met Meyer through the community theater circuit, though he can’t remember when. As he explains it, “Helene just sort of arises. You find this presence in your life, and you don’t know where she came from.”

He said she tapped him to help do staged readings from her play, recalling that they performed them for the staff of the psychiatry department at St. Anthony’s Hospital.

“The thing about Helene is that she’s one dedicated woman,” Moore said. “She’s persistent, she’s got a vision, she’s got a dream, she’s got a passion. She’s had some bumps in the road, but she persevered and just keeps on going.”

In 2011, Meyer officially formed Slaying Dragons (slayingdragons.org). Its tagline: Giving mental health a stage.

“I was passionate about forming Slaying Dragons,” said Meyer, who has also written several Jewish plays for children with Howard Schwartz, an author and professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. 

“I knew it would be a lot of work but, thankfully, I got a lot of help along the way. They all believed in me. Some supported financially, some became board members. There is a group of actors who have stayed with me and are so dedicated.”

Slaying Dragons performs plays, some original, some classics such as “A Hatful of Rain,” as well as staged readings, all of which focus on mental health issues such as addiction, depression, schizophrenia, PTSD and Alzheimer’s disease. 

“We don’t only deal with it from the standpoint of the person with the illness, but also the family and what they are going through,” Meyer said. 

Each performance is followed by a discussion between the audience and a panel of mental health experts. Most of the plays, including the upcoming “Just Keep Rolling Along” on Dec. 7 to 10, are performed at the Center for Spiritual Living in Creve Coeur, though sometimes the company performs at medical facilities and schools.

“Helene has been a valiant warrior trying to slay the stigma of mental health issues,” said Janice Roberg, the nonprofit’s former treasurer and board member. “She loves theater and she’s remarkably talented. There would be no Slaying Dragon if it weren’t for Helene. It is a sheer force of will.” 

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About the Contributor
ELLEN FUTTERMAN, Editor-in-Chief
A native of Westbury, New York, Ellen Futterman broke into the world of big city journalism as a general assignment reporter for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner in the latter part of the 20th century. Deciding that Tinsel Town was not exciting enough for her, she moved on to that hub of glamour and sophistication, Belleville, Ill., where she became a feature writer, columnist and food editor for the Belleville News-Democrat. A year later the St. Louis Post-Dispatch scooped her up, neither guessing at the full range of her talents, nor the extent of her shoe collection. She went on to work at the Post-Dispatch for 25 years, during which time she covered hard news, education, features, investigative projects, profiles, sports, entertainment, fashion, interiors, business, travel and movies. She won numerous major local and national awards for her reporting on "Women Who Kill" and on a four-part series about teen-age pregnancy, 'Children Having Children.'" Among her many jobs at the newspaper, Ellen was a columnist for three years, Arts and Entertainment Editor, Critic-at-large and Daily Features (Everyday) Editor. She invented two sections from scratch, one of which recently morphed from Get Out, begun in 1995, to GO. In January of 2009, Ellen joined the St. Louis Jewish Light as its editor, where she is responsible for overseeing editorial operations, including managing both staff members and freelancers. Under her tutelage, the Light has won 16 Rockower Awards — considered the Jewish Pulitzer’s — including two personally for Excellence in Commentary for her weekly News & Schmooze column. She also is the communications content editor for the Arts and Education Council of St. Louis. Ellen and her husband, Jeff Burkett, a middle school principal, live in Olivette and have three children. Ellen can be reached at 314-743-3669 or at [email protected].