Two years ago, we were asked by PBS to produce a two-hour documentary about youth mental health—with Ken Burns as executive producer. The network’s goal was to have a high-impact film that not only could inform our audience about our country’s mental health crisis, but could also serve as a cornerstone for WellBeings, PBS’s decade-long initiative to demystify and destigmatize mental illness. 

Every film we make is a process of discovery. So, our first step was to talk to prominent experts in the field such as Patrick Kennedy, Thomas Insel, Mary Gilberti, and Nora Volkow. Next, we consulted with people on the front lines—social workers, child psychologists, school counselors, and people working at local youth organizations. 

Soon, however, it became clear that before we could talk about youth mental health we needed to help our viewers feel what it is like to be a young person living with mental health challenges. After all, while there are many professionals with expertise in mental-health research, diagnosis,  and treatment as well as the scientific and socio-political challenges involved, the real experts are those who know these disorders first-hand. It’s their stories that can help normalize discussions about mental health, reduce stigma, promote real empathy, and open the eyes of people who don’t take the issue seriously.

We made one other discovery during our research and development phase—one that will come as no surprise to anyone involved in addressing these issues: the subject is way too big for one two-hour film. So we are now planning to produce three films, each consisting of at least two episodes that are scheduled for broadcast in 2022, 2025, and 2027.

The first will focus on young people—their lived experiences and the challenges faced by their parents and providers. Subsequent films will address research, politics, and society’s evolving attitudes and approach to mental health.

We call this first film Hiding in Plain Sight because while most health issues are talked about freely, mental health is still often in the shadows—of our communities, workplaces, schools, and even homes. To maximize the film’s impact, we searched for people who had never talked about their mental health challenges in front of a camera and, in some cases, had never spoken about them at all. They speak with raw honesty about their depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicide ideation, addiction, psychosis, and even encounters with the juvenile justice system. These amazing individuals—whom we now call our “heroes”—come from all over the country and represent a wide range of  diagnoses and demographics, as well as race, ethnicity, and gender identity. They range in age from 11-25 along with several older people who speak with remarkable insight and clarity about their mental health concerns when they were young. 

In the film, each interviewee looks directly at the camera—directly at you—as if you were having a one-on-one conversation. This approach makes it possible for viewers to identify with the illness in a visceral way—to say after watching them, “I never knew that,” or “Yes, this could be me,” or, frequently, “Yes, this is me…and it’s time for me to speak up and to seek help.”

The youth mental-health crisis impacts everyone, in their own life and/or the lives of family, friends, and colleagues. The challenges of Covid have made the crisis even more serious and the need for prevention, early intervention and treatment even more critical. We hope our film promotes the kind of open dialogue, understanding, and collaboration that are essential for progress.

For more information, watch our presentation at the recent Inscopix DECODE Summit 2020, which includes selected interview clips.

You can find more information about the PBS WellBeings Initiative here.