Ken Burns, executive producer of a new documentary on America’s youth mental health crisis, expresses its bold ambition: “We hope that this film will save lives.’’
The film is Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness, by Erik Ewers and Christopher Loren Ewers. It premieres nationwide June 27 and 28 on PBS stations, PBS.org and the PBS Video app. The two-part, four-hour film features interviews with more than 20 young people diagnosed with various mental health conditions; with their parents, teachers, friends and healthcare providers; and with mental health experts.
The film depicts the daily lives of these young people, and shows how they deal with issues such as stigma, discrimination, awareness, and silence.
“We interviewed a diverse group of courageous young people from across the country with a range of diagnoses who spoke openly with us, and shared intimate, and often painful, details of their mental health journeys,” the Ewers brothers said in a statement. They said they hoped that their film “will help shed light on how commonplace — how truly universal — mental health challenges are, and encourage other young people who are struggling to seek help.’’
The film’s subjects include a teenager who surrenders to addiction at age 15; a Native American woman who feels so isolated she contemplates suicide; a transgender teen for whom life can be utterly joyless; a high school freshman whose childhood hallucinations intensify after a series of assaults.
Four young members of the Youthcast Media Group (YMG) who’ve viewed the film offer these reactions:
Sreehitha Gandluri, 15, Clarksburg, Maryland, YMG student contributor, rising juniorat Our Lady of Good Counsel High School, Olney, Maryland
As a child of immigrant parents, growing up in a community where mental health was often swept under the rug, I appreciated how the film discusses issues facing people from backgrounds like mine. From the start, it evokes raw emotions by telling the stories of real young people – and, sometimes, their anguish.
The message is conveyed, and the pace maintained, by a mixture of close-up shots of speakers and montages of images. The images provide emotional heft, and balance the commentary of mental health experts. The speakers – young people, those who know them, and professional experts – might have deserved more screen time than the montages.
The film benefits from the careful, smooth continuity of how the young people are profiled. The focus is clear, and I was engaged throughout. Despite the disparate parts, the narrative was seamless because the parts complimented each other. I also was drawn in by the very diversity of the subjects, who range in age from 11 to 27 and come from many socio-economic, racial and gender backgrounds. That proclaims the universality of mental health as a dire issue in all communities — not just those able to afford therapy and counseling.
Although the primary focus is on those suffering mental health problems, some of the most moving parts of the film involved the testimony of loved ones, particularly in cases involving substance addiction. It’s also sad to be reminded that many of these young people are unable to find support in their own families, a reality that only worsens their mental health struggles.
To be true to its subject, the film includes people from every imaginable walk of life. That is the best thing about Hiding in Plain Sight, and the saddest thing about the problem it depicts.
Hermes Falcon (he/they), 19, Miami Gardens, Florida, YMG intern and rising sophomore at Bradley University
I’ve struggled with mental illness for most of my life. Even now, I wonder if there’s something wrong with me. So I found Hiding in Plain Sight particularly compelling, because it seemed as if the children and young adults who talked about their lives were looking into my mind and reading my thoughts back to me.
The film covers it all, especially how your environment and the people in it affect your mental health. So do race and all sorts of other issues. And the film touches on topics that many people are too ashamed or too uncomfortable to talk about, like self-harm, addiction and the mental healthcare system itself.
You can’t help but shed a few tears as you watch the documentary. You come to understand the personal struggles. You realize that anyone can suffer from mental illness. You learn that the path to recovery is never straight.
And you won’t forget one description of mental illness: “An emotional heart attack.”
Michelle Mairena, 19, Naranja, Florida. YMG intern and rising sophomore at Stanford University
Most mental health documentaries treat the subject from a medical standpoint. They focus on the diagnoses and treatments for disorders such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders and addiction. The power of Hiding in Plain Sight is that, while offering the usual kind of expert medical commentary, it focuses on the personal stories of those actually coping with illness.
While it is hard to keep track of the numerous storylines, the film’s impact comes from these personal narratives. Everyone interviewed has a different one, illuminating issues such as parental addiction, gender pressures, racial injustice, LGBT+ life and more.
Teens and young adults, some of whom have suffered from a young age, offer detailed accounts about family relations and interactions at school. They explain what it’s like to feel helplessly isolated. In so doing, they take what the documentary contends is the most difficult step for anyone suffering from mental illness: talking about how you feel.
Sophie Beney, 22, Boston, YMG visuals editor, 2022 graduate of Syracuse University
I felt I understood the youth depicted in the film – and understood by them.
Their discussion of the impact of social media on mental illness resonated most with me. Its influence on my generation has bred a toxic and competitive environment. Social media can impose unrealistic standards on young people at a very vulnerable and formative time in life – whatever their personal mental health.
Another valuable thing about the film is to show how parents feel when their child goes through a mental health crisis. Parents interviewed say that they didn’t even know what to do about their child’s symptoms. They felt confused.
The film’s experts and witnesses offer a lot of good advice. None of it is more important than this: Parents (and everyone else) must meet a child where they are, not where they want them to be.
– Rick Hampson, a former national reporter at USA TODAY and the Associated Press, wrote this story. It is based on the insights of a high school participant, two college interns and a contributing visuals editor at Youthcast Media Group, a nonprofit organization that teaches high school students across the country to report on health and social issues that impact diverse communities and the solutions to these issues. YMG also provided the photos of the writers.