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No longer ‘alien to our affections’ – commentary – New Hampshire Bulletin – New Hampshire Bulletin

At the invitation of Monadnock Family Services, writer David Blistein, co-director Erik Ewers, and producer Julie Coffman showed a 30 minute preview of the four-hour film they call “Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness” in Keene recently. Interesting as the filmmakers were to the audience, the impact in the room belonged to Yanerry, a brave young woman participating in the film. She captivated the audience by telling why and how she wanted her painful struggle to be a part of this poignant call to break the silence that most often surrounds mental illness. You’ll soon be reading about this engaging adult in People magazine.

Because the film is so powerful, in a short while it will be shown at the White House one day, and then to both houses of Congress the next. Unlike any other subject executive producer Ken Burns and the great talents at Florentine Films have ever tackled, it may very well be that this masterpiece of a public health documentary on youth mental illness will save lives, as Burns himself predicts and deeply hopes. I agree with him.

The honest, sincere, and enthralling disclosures from the 20 teens and young adults in this documentary tug at the heart. Their candor about their deepest thoughts, feelings, and battles against illness is an act of courage. The filmmakers who know them want people to know that they are still fighting every day, but are doing well; now many want to transform that pain into advocacy.

We should be thankful for that and for this tour de force film because the nation faces a mental health pandemic like never before. Thomas Insel, MD, former head of the National Institute on Mental Health and also featured in the film, makes this clear in his recent book, “Healing: Our Path from Mental Illness to Mental Health.” He is hardly the only one who describes our current situation in such stark ways. You can add the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, national mental health advocacy groups, and even the Gallup organization. Statistics on the increasing rates of death by suicide and drug overdose, calls to mental health crisis lines, and online screening services all support that conclusion. 

“Simply put …,” Insel writes, “our current approach [to mental illness] is a disaster on many fronts. Not only is mental health care delivered ineffectively, but it is most accessed during a crisis and strategically focused only on relieving symptoms and not on helping people recover.” Our “system” of mental health care delivery in America should really be called a “non-system.”

“I was just alone,” Yanerry told the audience. “I would search YouTube for people who were going through what I was feeling. I wanted to find people who felt like me. Being in this film was a beautiful thing. Finally, I was able to talk about all of this. Everyone is different, but reaching out is most important.” 

The film’s strength lies in many aspects: the stories of pain, confusion, isolation, despair, trauma, and crippling symptoms told in such honest and touching ways by those as young as 11, the haunting and beautiful still photography, the convincing and stark messages from providers and advocates like former congressman Patrick Kennedy, the confession from attentive parents that they had no idea how much their child was suffering. Through it all, the message is one of hope. For people who suffer and their families, the call is to “find your person,” someone you trust, a person you can talk to, be that someone a family member, friend, therapist, teacher, or coach. Know that you are not alone, that you are person of great value, worthy of love. Should you be on the path to suicide, know that there are many ways out and that death is not the only way even if it seems so in the moment.

Back in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy addressed a message to Congress about people with mental illness, he said that they should never be “alien to our affections” or “beyond the help of our communities.” I suspect that this film will be a quantum leap toward living out those words. My hope is that people won’t hide their eyes from “Hiding in Plain Sight,” which airs on PBS on June 27 and 28. Watch it alone, watch it with your kids, or with your friends, but watch it. If you are struggling with mental illness, find your person.

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