On the surface, Morgan seems like the stereotypical All-American Girl: popular in high school, a homecoming queen who dated the star football player and brought home good grades. But the reality is more complex. As an adolescent, she struggled with depression, addiction, self-harm and suicidal ideation. She once threw herself in front of a car in despair.
Now 26, Morgan and more than 20 other young Americans reveal their struggles with mental illness in heart-wrenching detail in “Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness,” a new two-part documentary from the Ken Burns filmmaking crew. In an interview the soft-spoken Morgan, whose troubles began around age 14, says she is nervous about telling her story. But if she can help just two teens battling with mental illness, she says, then sharing the bleakest days of her life with millions will have been worth it.
Alexis, a 21-year-old member of the Chippewa Nation, grew up in a “beautiful culture” on a tribal reservation, but she was also surrounded by intergenerational trauma, substance use disorder, poverty and racism. The overwhelming emotions she experienced as a teen – she battled depression and suicidal thoughts – spiraled until she “exploded.” Alexis says members of her generation feel a duty to change the script around mental illness.
Calmly, quietly, from their bedrooms and living rooms, these youth recount the details of their most private adversities in what feels like a giant PSA for their peers – and their parents, grandparents, teachers and anyone else who cares about the mental health of young people. The message: Your experience is unique, but you are not alone. Treatments can make a difference. Ask for help. Start talking. Nobody should suffer in silence.
Watching “Hiding in Plain Sight” is an educational exercise in listening and learning. And – viewer advisory – it’s a lot: sadness, grief, anger, fear, frustration, confusion, loneliness, loss. As narrator Peter Coyote notes, mental illness is as pervasive as cancer, diabetes and heart disease, but it often exists in secret and is endured in isolation. It’s also an everyday tragedy playing out all over America right now.
In December, in a rare public health advisory, the United States Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy warned of a “devastating” mental health crisis among adolescents. Healing can happen –the courageous souls in this film are proof of that – but, as the documentary also makes clear, the journey to wellness takes resources and patience, evolving over time but rarely moving in a straight line to a Hollywood-style happy ending.
This Ken Burns Presents documentary is directed and co-produced by filmmakers Erik Ewers and Christopher Loren Ewers. Erik has served as Burns’ editor for 30 years and his brother Christopher is a veteran director of photography. “Hiding in Plain Sight” resonates with these creatives: Burns has talked about how his grief over the early death of his mother and how it affected his life and filmmaking; in an interview the Ewers nod to mental health issues in their family. Erik Ewers mentions that mental health is something he’s dealt with for much of his life.
Kudos to the pair, who clearly built trust and empathy as they interviewed a diverse group of young people from across the country with a wide range of diagnoses who spoke openly and shared intimate, uncomfortable accounts about their mental health.
“We don’t talk about feelings, we don’t talk about struggles,” says Makalynn, now 27, an African American woman with bipolar disorder and addiction issues. “We don’t talk about what’s going on in our head.” But “Hiding in Plain Sight” does all those things. We learn in the series’ first episode, “The Storm,” that Makalynn’s father (who also has a substance use disorder) was frequently incarcerated and that her childhood was punctuated by trauma, chaos and unpredictability.
There’s both an urgency and timeliness to this film. We live in toxic times. American youth were plagued with mental health issues well before the pandemic hit, but the isolation, disruption and uncertainty of COVID-19 have only served to make matters worse. In press materials announcing the film’s launch, executive Ken Burns says he and the team hope that the film will save lives. As a society, he says, “We continue to test the resiliency of youth without truly understanding how the stresses of today, including this unprecedented pandemic, are impacting them.” The filmmakers say they want to bring mental health out of the shadows and encourage youth who are floundering to seek help.
Facts: The U.S. is home to some of the highest rates of mental illness in the world, and COVID-19 has exacerbated this crisis, with young people bearing the brunt. Half of all mental illness begins by the age of 14 and 75 per cent by the age of 24. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death in young people. Almost half of all U.S. adolescents have experienced a mental health disorder; more than 22 percent of them are severely impaired.
Who better to hear from, then, than those who have lived these experiences? “Hiding in Plain Sight” focuses on youth voices – though viewers also hear from parents, friends and professionals who provide context and scaffolding. Public media station WETA Washington produced both the series and Well Beings, a multi-year media campaign to demystify mental health through storytelling, community events and educational curriculum.
Despite the film’s onerous subject matter, there’s an undercurrent of hope – which doesn’t mean there’s a quick fix. Many of the documentary’s subjects tried dozens of medications before settling on a regimen that keeps their disease in check. Others attempted multiple rounds of rehab before recovering from addiction, which often stemmed from their underlying mental health conditions.
As the film’s subjects recount the battles inside their heads, they are frank about the self-destructive coping strategies they’ve pursued. Self-medicating with illegal or prescription drugs is like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound, says Justin, who lost a friend in high school and turned to drugs and alcohol. He has since faced delusions and paranoia, along with stints in rehab and jail. As a parent, it’s tough stuff to watch: This could happen to anyone’s kid.
The film touches on whether nature (genes) or nurture (environment) alone cause a mental illness. In reality, both usually interact to create a perfect storm. Early childhood adversity – from poverty and racism to parental discord and neglect to adult substance use and incarceration – can play a leading role. So can bullying, peer pressure, gender discrimination and social media, not to mention traumas like climate change, mass shootings and a pandemic. Little wonder that children in this modern age are grappling with mental health matters.
Psychiatrist and MindSite News co-founder Thomas Insel makes a poignant cameo in both a personal and professional capacity. The former head of the National Institute of Mental Health reveals that his own daughter almost died from anorexia – and that he missed all the clues. Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, a mental health advocate (and MindSite News advisory board member) who has been public about his own struggles with bipolar disorder and addiction, surfaces repeatedly across the four-hour documentary to offer big-picture context.
Part two of the program, “Resilience,” delves into the double stigma of being a minority with a mental illness. Youth talk about the pressure they feel to handle their disease in secret to avoid negative attention on their community. Yaadieah, 23, notes that a white woman can have an anxiety attack, but an African American woman with the same symptoms will be seen as “an angry Black woman.” Similarly, Latinos are often stereotyped as “loud, crazy, and dramatic.”
This episode also addresses how people with mental health disorders often wind up in a revolving door of desperation, cycling through psychiatric hospitals, residential treatment facilities and the criminal justice system. It also recounts the experiences of a group of teenage boys devastated by the suicide of a beloved classmate, who is remembered as joyful, charming and hilarious. The friends feel the impact on their own mental health and launch a suicide-prevention initiative to safeguard others from enduring such a loss. Says Angel: “It was like getting hit by a wrecking ball.”
“Hiding in Plain Sight” feels like it should be required viewing at middle and high schools around the country. But will four hours of (mostly) talking heads on a heavy topic resonate with the Tik Tok set? The filmmakers have cultivated an experiential vibe, interweaving interviews with re-enactments, animation, artwork, news clips and social media posts – along with archival footage, photos and B-roll.
Inspirational quotes like “What kept me sane was knowing that things would change, and it was a question of keeping myself together until they did –Nina Simone,” and definitional chyrons (de.pre.sion/: deep feelings of melancholy, hopelessness, joylessness) serve as section markers and visual pauses. Still, it’s mostly people talking on and to camera. The producers have wisely created a social media campaign that is rolling out bite-sized chunks from the documentary via other platforms that may be more digestible by hungry, if distracted, viewers.
At the film’s end, the youth speak directly to the audience, explaining where they’re at in their lives and bring home this coda: Dealing with mental illness is hard, but it’s not insurmountable. The baby of the bunch is 11-year-old Maclayn, who has struggled with anxiety and thoughts of suicide. Today he is thriving in theatre, has come out as gay, and says, “I’m going to have an amazing life.”
Transgender Billie, 17 at the time of her interview, has overcome panic attacks, anxiety, substance use disorder, eating disorder and self-harm – and appears to have turned a corner. Makalynn refuses to let her disease define her: She is a graduate student and wants to work in criminal justice advocacy. Others are working as mental health peer support specialists. “You get through the storm,” says Justin, who helps incarcerated addicts. “And then (you) see the silver lining, and it’s a beautiful thing.”
Word is the filmmakers will follow these young folk over a period of years and circle back on their progress, pivots, and setbacks in future films. This viewer imagines the film could be the beginning of a mental-health focused program like British director Michael Apted’s “Up” series, which has so far tracked the lives of a group of people every seven years from ages 7 to 63. Seems only fitting for a lifelong condition like mental health, though one-to-three-year increments may be a better timeframe to catch up with this crew. Viewers will be rooting for all of them to overcome their obstacles, and go on, as Insel says, to do “spectacular things in their lives.” Stay tuned.
Correction: The original version of this story reported that film participant Justin Volpe lost a friend to suicide in high school. This was incorrect. In fact, the friend died in an accident. The story has been updated.
If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889. Services are free and available 24/7.
HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT: YOUTH MENTAL ILLNESS will be available for streaming concurrent with broadcast on all PBS platforms, including PBS.org and the PBS Video app, and numerous streaming services and devices. PBS station members can view many series, documentaries and specials via PBS Passport.
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