New Ken Burns PBS Documentary Offers A Raw Look At Youth Mental Health Crisis

Maclayn talks about his journey to mental health during an interview in Montana for the documentary Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness. (Photo courtesy of Erik Ewers)

When brothers Erik Ewers and Christopher Loren Ewers set out to make a documentary about the mental health issues of American youth, they knew they were tackling a ubiquitous problem that hadn’t been talked about for far too long. What they failed to realize were the lessons they would discover about themselves.

Hiding in plain sight: Mental illness in young people, a two-part documentary premiering Monday on PBS, presents the raw stories of nearly two dozen young people from diverse backgrounds who are candid about their excruciating life experiences. Through varied stories that cover issues such as abuse, addiction and discrimination, the Ewers hope their film will give their audiences the insight that they have come to themselves: Everyone, regardless of their background, is affected in one way or another. by the US mental health crisis.

Executive-produced by famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, the film was screened at the White House on Thursday, with First Lady Jill Biden saying, “We have so much work to do to help our children heal,” and thanking the filmmakers for shining their light. a light on mental health.

“It’s impossible not to be moved by the pain these young people and their families share,” she said. “But there was also so much hope. Because they had all found a way out of that darkness into the light.”

The documentary airs Mondays and Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET and will be available on PBS stations nationwide, PBS.com and the PBS Video app. It is part of a larger public media initiative called Well Beings to raise awareness about mental health issues.

“The purpose of the film, we hope, is that people will find relativity in their own lives through these children’s stories,” Christopher, who co-directed the documentary with his brother, told The 74. ways I can’t even describe each person’s story. Some of them almost broke me down when we were filming their interviews because they got so close to home.”

Its youths range in age from 11 to 27, including a teen who lost his battle with addiction at age 15, a young Native American woman who felt so isolated she contemplated suicide, and a high school freshman who a series of seizures that led to disturbing hallucinations. Among them is Billie, a 15-year-old from a rural farming community who was severely bullied for being transgender. For 14-year-old Xavier, the trauma stemmed from an abusive father.

“Cigarette smoke is something very triggering from my past because I associate it with being beaten by wooden sticks,” said Xavier, who recalls being beaten “for no reason.”

Xavier, who uses skateboarding as a coping mechanism, was filmed for a scene in Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness. (Photo courtesy of Kara Mickley/PBS)

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about half of mental illness begins at age 14 and 75% occurs by age 24.

“The things that my ancestors went through is evidence of alcohol abuse, addictions, unstable families, toxic relationships,” explains Alexis, a 21-year-old who grew up on a Native American reservation. “That’s the burden that Indigenous youth face every day. You were just born into it.”

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a bleak insight into the magnitude of the problem and how the pandemic has made the crisis worse for millions of teens, especially LGBTQ youth and girls. In a recent CDC survey, more than a third of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health during the pandemic, nearly 20% reported that they seriously considered committing suicide, and as many as 9% had actually attempted it. Even before the pandemic, suicide was one of the leading causes of death among teens as anxiety and depression increased among young people. In 2009, a quarter of high school students reported feeling persistent sadness or hopelessness. By 2019, that percentage had increased to almost 37%.

Although the project has been years in the making, the film recognizes how the pandemic has made the crises much more urgent. The Ewers have long partnered with Ken Burns, and the trio will continue to work together over the next 10 years to create a series of films examining America’s mental health crisis.

Over the course of four hours, this first film takes viewers on a journey that for many began with traumatic experiences leading to debilitating mental health problems, but ended with a message of hope. Despite roadblocks, including homelessness, arrests, addictions, eating disorders and suicide attempts, many of the young subjects were able to move on and live happy lives thanks to the mental health care and coping skills they developed.

Erik and Christopher Loren Ewers (KenBurns.com)

Yet recovery is a lifelong process. It’s a lesson Erik learned firsthand while filming the documentary, he said. All his life he struggled to understand his emotional problems. Although his parents took him to a psychiatrist when he was in elementary school, he didn’t really begin to face his challenges until he started filming the documentary. The boy in his film, he said, “gave me an education about myself.”

“If the film has the power to do that for me, I can only hope it will have that power for other people,” he said.

Christopher said the youth interviews also touched his family, as his daughter struggled with her own mental health issues. Listening to each of the stories, he said, “it gave us the courage and dedication to see through the proper care of our daughter.”

Because the filmmakers weave the individual stories of the young people into a coherent story, the result can only be described as a gut feeling. Aiming to give an unvarnished look at the ubiquity of psychological crises among young people, the documentary is sometimes difficult to watch. But solving the problem would be a disservice to those who are struggling, Erik said.

“Imagine a kid literally looking at it and we toned it down, which we obviously wouldn’t have done,” he said. “But if they did, they’d say, ‘Wow, I’m a lot worse than I thought,’ or say, ‘This is bullshit.'”

The stigma still associated with mental health issues prevents many young people from sharing their experiences, but the Ewers brothers said their subjects were motivated to open up on film — and felt better as a result. They were tired of keeping their suffering locked inside and hoped that greater awareness could save lives.

Alexis, who grew up on a Native American reservation, shares her experience with mental health hurdles. (PBS)

Alexis, who grew up on the reservation, said nearly all Indigenous youth are victims of trauma and abuse to some degree. But also embedded in her DNA, she said, is resilience.

“I’m sure my ancestors and my elders are rooting for me and they want me to do the right thing,” she said. “I will share my story again and again. I’ll go through those emotions a million times if it helps one person.”


This article was published in collaboration with the 74† Sign up here for The 74’s newsletter.

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