Mental health problems through the eyes of students

There is little question that mental health has perhaps become, or is becoming, the seminal issue of our time and it’s good to watch solutions appear through students’ eyes.

Mental health issues and the sorted products thereof have wrapped the nation in fear and quite literally have begun to alter the nation’s psyche, especially among students.

Students, however, are finally having their say. A collaborative effort between government agencies, mental health services and an organization of county governments created a virtual statewide film festival, allowing students from high schools across California the opportunity to make short films to compete in a “Directing Change,” competition.

“Directing Change is part of statewide efforts to prevent suicide, reduce stigma and discrimination related to mental illness, and to promote the mental health and wellness of students,” the organization claims on its website.

David N. Young, courtesy photo

“These initiatives are funded by counties through the Mental Health Services Act (Prop 63) and administered by the California Mental Health Services Authority (CalMHSA), an organization of county governments working to improve mental health outcomes for individuals, families and communities.”

Within Los Alamitos Unified, the task fell to Conner Brown, the one-time filmmaker to put down his camera to teach filmmaking and media at Los Al High School. “Mr. Brown’s class” has become a hit, as students learn to act, produce, record, do special effects, etc.

After all, we are increasingly evolving into a storytelling world, so it stands to reason that students are so eager to express themselves.

But this competition was different, and his classes embraced it.

“This event is so important on so many levels,” said Brown.

“First of all, it takes a real look at mental health issues that teenagers face, addressing them head-on and giving students a safe space to reflect and discuss with each other the issues they face,” he said.

“Secondly, it is a great opportunity for the advanced film students to be challenged to create a video with such a serious underlying tone. And these students absolutely rose to the occasion,” he said.

“We had six submissions this year and all of them were quite impressive. Each tackling different subjects of mental health, from suicide prevention to eating disorders, to the importance of reaching out to a friend,” said Brown.

Students in the Advanced Film Program at LAHS created engaging and powerful PSA’s that hopefully lead to discussion and positive change. This is Los Al’s first time to enter the competition, says Brown.

Two of these submissions have already been selected as category winners by the annual film contest, “Directing Change.”

The first winning video “Beyond the Surface”, was created by LAHS Senior Emily Fitzgerald, Junior Kyan Whiten, and Junior Jessica Bae. It won 1st place regionally in the “Mental Health” category.

These student filmmakers have managed to pack powerful images and stories in these short films, which are just over one minute long. Fellow students acted, wrote, and produced the entries, said Brown, amplifying their impact.

In the film, a female athlete pretends there is no problem only to be seen bubbling up from underwater, gasping for air as she reveals she’s really not ok.

Additionally, the second winning video “Hot Pot”, created by LAHS film students Charlize Fan (Senior), Isabella Kira (Junior), Kolyana Si (Senior), and Shilah Shurki (Senior) won 1st place statewide in the “Through the Lens of Culture” category.

In this video, a teen and his dad go through dinner awkwardly, not knowing how to break the ice on what the dad could sense was threatening his son.

Both of the winning short films will be played at the Directing Change Award Ceremony scheduled for May 21 at the United Theatre on Broadway in Los Angeles. Brown said both films still have the potential to earn the top spot in their respective categories.

Perhaps there is no better way for parents to peer into the minds of their children than to view their ideation of mental health on film. This Wednesday, April 24, from 3:30 – 4:30 p.m., the Lecture Hall at LAHS, parents and supporters of the Los Al School system will have their chance.

Brown said the school has scheduled a “Screening” for all of the films.

“This is the first year Los Alamitos High School has entered this film festival,” said Brown, “and immediately they are making a name for themselves as one of the top schools competing.”

“The students have enjoyed the process of making and submitting these films as they continue on their journey to become great filmmakers,” he added.

“We hope that the community shows up to support these young filmmakers and their work,” said Brown. “We will be showing the videos the students made as well as having a question and answer panel with the students as well as mental health experts.”

Frankly, the short films created by students were fascinating for many reasons. Not only are they lifelines thrown by the students themselves, but they demand respect for the mastery of craft it took to produce them.

Thanks to LAEF and Los Al Unified, students at every school now have parlors of safe harbor with counselors to help. Obviously, that’s a great start.

Now if we listen to the messages students themselves are sending in ways that transcend otherwise awkward conversations, it’s just another big step along the road to wellness.

For parents and community members who cannot make the public screenings and discussion on Wednesday, Brown said the films will be made public after the competition in May.

It’s always helpful to see problems through the eyes of those most affected, especially when it is our next generation of leaders who are directing change.