The Hidden Pandemic


In an unprecedented year of crisis, the pressure was on to put projects on hold and retreat from in-person interviews. But what if your team of producers have different ideas? Rather than waiting for better times, could this be our public media moment to shine and deliver something meaningful to our audience?

“The Hidden Pandemic” is a documentary and multi-platform community engagement project that sheds a spotlight on the unfolding impact of mental illness during this pandemic year. It’s about depression, anxiety, suicide and exposing the cracks in a system that was faltering even before COVID hit.

This is not a virtual project. We make ourselves vulnerable by entering people’s homes and poking our head into doctors’ offices and medical clinics. At a time when mask and vaccine policies are dividing Americans across political divides, we go to great lengths to tell an inclusive story that engages conservatives and liberals, urban and rural residents and Black, white and Hispanic Kansas Citians.

We meet a farmer in Kansas who acknowledges he can sometimes spend 10 hours a day just sitting idly in his tractor. He ruminates about taking his own life. He’s never asked for help. He says in rural Kansas there’s too much of a stigma attached to seeking mental health counseling.

We meet a mentally ill woman living in a home filled with rats. A special night camera we installed in her kitchen picks up 97 rodent movements in an hour. We meet an emergency room doctor who is dealing with so many mentally ill patients he’s set up a makeshift ward for them. The 450-bed facility currently has no designated mental health wing or unit.

Wrapped around the documentary is a town hall in which we prod and poke decision makers. There are five digital-video shorts designed to grab the attention of younger audiences who may not have developed the habit of tuning into a long-form program on public television. And there are community screenings, including a statewide mental health summit with the Governor of Kansas, top Republican lawmakers and judges, attorneys, parole and probation officers.

Our digital team produced a fast-paced “5 TIPS” segment on what to do if you’re emotionally struggling. Our “CuriousKC” online engagement reporter answered viewer questions and turned them into news stories. And the project features a comprehensive online guide to mental health resources.