With the release of a new documentary executive-produced by Ken Burns, public TV stations across the country are working with WETA in Washington, D.C., on engagement campaigns to address the stigma around youth mental illness.
Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness is airing on PBS stations Monday and Tuesday evenings this week. Along with the broadcast, WETA has given 16 stations grants of $3,000 to $10,000 to stage screening events, teacher trainings and panel discussions to raise awareness about the youth mental health crisis. The funds come from WETA sponsors and partners.
The documentary is part of WETA’s Well Beings project, which the station launched in 2020. In its first stage, the public health campaign focuses on youth mental health. WETA launched Well Beings in the wake of The Story of Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, another Ken Burns documentary presented by the station.
“We really felt like we wanted to stay in this space of addressing the notion of people’s physical health, their mental health and health-care access,” said John Wilson, chief national content officer for WETA. “[We wanted] to create not just content, but to really create community action that could allow stations across the country to connect to their communities to address this.”
The mental health crisis in the U.S. has worsened in recent years, especially among adolescents. Rates of suicide among people ages 10–24 increased nearly 60% from 2007–18, according to the Centers for Disease Control. From 2009–19, the number of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness grew 40%.
Hiding in Plain Sight follows more than 20 people ages 11–27 across the country and their providers, advocates, family and friends. To accompany the film, WETA has developed a community engagement guide and an educator toolkit that includes content from the documentary.
Between 24 and 30 stations are hosting engagement events for the film release, which often include screenings and panel discussions. Some stations have hosted roundtables with local teens and educator outreach events.
WETA is connecting stations hosting events with its national partners, such as the National Alliance for Mental Illness. “We never claim to be experts in anything … so what we do in any of our projects, but specifically for Well Beings, we have identified partners that can help in all kinds of ways to reach the audiences that we want to,” said Amy Labenski, senior director of national impact and engagement at WETA. “… Engagement is a way that we can provide real, tangible assets and resources that people can use in their regular lives.”
These connections provide stations with the tools and resources they need to have productive conversations in their communities about mental health, according to Labenski. WETA also provides stations with graphics, social media content and clips from the film to aid with activities at local events.
Red carpet for Montana kids
Though stations often hold events prior to broadcast, some will hold post-premiere screenings through the end of the year, so a number of “really impactful” projects are still in the works, Labenski said. These include school events, which will be held in the fall.
On Monday, Chicago’s PBS station hosted “Voices: A WTTW News Community Conversation,” featuring documentary co-producers Erik Ewers and Christopher Loren Ewers. On Aug. 1, WNED in Buffalo, N.Y., will hold a focus group and engagement event, and WMHT in Schenectady, N.Y., will screen the film and host a panel discussion.
Montana PBS is hosting events Monday and Tuesday this week featuring a red carpet for Montana kids who shared their stories in the documentary, followed by a reflection and training activity for teachers in attendance. The station received funds from WETA to support the engagement efforts.
“I think this film does what media does best, which is show windows into what the world looks like beyond our state, but also holds up the mirror and helps people see themselves in this as well,” said Nicole Vradenburg, director of education for Montana PBS, a WETA grantee.
Montana PBS became involved with the film through organizations that approached the station to help combat the mental health crisis. Kee Dunning, a Montana resident and therapist featured in the film, began this work, partnering with banks and medical facility foundations to help destigmatize youth mental illness.
Montana PBS will use its grant to continue training events in conjunction with film screenings through November. Vradenburg and Dunning will travel across the state to lead screenings and peer discussions for teachers with mental health professionals. The events will focus on identifying students who may have a mental illness, anxiety and strategies to support children with anxiety and social media and its impact on mental health.
The grant is key to allowing Vradenburg to travel with Dunning for the events, the first of which will be Oct. 1. Vradenburg hopes to secure further funding based on the success of upcoming events after the WETA grant ends.
“It’s rare for us to see Montana’s stories told in a national film like this and to have Montana kids featured and a Montana therapist featured so prominently,” Vradenburg said. “It’s definitely within our best interests to fulfill our mission to connect the citizens of Montana and to tell these diverse stories and to get this film out in front of as many people as we can.”