Burnt Hills native documentary sparks powerful dialogue among Shen students – The Daily Gazette

CLIFTON PARK – Before agreeing to show more than 550 high school students a documentary about the struggles of four young New Yorkers with mental illness, counselors and health teachers at Shenendehowa High School sat down to think about how screening could be received.

“We talked about the good and bad of showing a video, and the good and bad of having discussion questions [afterward]said Stephanie Carlton, a health teacher in the Shenendehowa Central School District. “Would these kids actually participate and share, and would they be open?”

The answer was a resounding yes.

After a screening of the film earlier this week, students spoke about the depth of their own struggles, said Ori Bello, a 16-year-old junior at Shenendehowa. The discussion did not glorify self-harm or depression, Bello said. On the contrary, it showed the students that there was hope – and they are not alone.

“I really felt relieved in the sense that [other students] were not only willing to confide in everyone and share something so personal and so profound, but also the fact that they opened that door,” Bello said. “Hearing how many people we’ve said they’ve tried [self-harm], but then saying they feel better now was great. It was really good.

That’s the message of “Tough Hope,” a 43-minute documentary directed by 2017 Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School graduate Kyle Farmer. resulted in hospitalization. And while the documentary includes very candid discussions of their struggles — from high school volleyball player to transgender individual, both of whom have dealt with issues of self-harm — the focus is on their recovery.

After focusing on music or skiing and finding purpose as a camp counselor or social worker, the four subjects of the documentary are now living happy lives. A highlight of the film comes at the end when Kirsten Sacchitella, the former volleyball player, is moved to tears when asked what would have happened if she hadn’t survived.

From not seeing his family every day to not being able to tell his mother how much she loves him to not being able to teach his nephew baseball, “I wouldn’t be able to live the life that was given to me” , said Sacchitella.

The film’s four stories represent the kind of positive role model that Dr. David Garrison, a University of Rochester psychiatrist who partnered with Farmer in making the film, said was crucial.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which means schools like Shenendehowa will emphasize social and emotional well-being in the classroom. But it’s critical that mental health awareness efforts focus on positive recovery rather than focusing on amplifying shared agonies, Garrison said.

“There’s a growing awareness of mental health issues, but there aren’t enough good role models of how to deal with them,” Garrison said.

That’s why Garrison said he was encouraged to learn that Shenendehowa had two service providers for each screening and discussion of the film. Staff also distributed information about mental health resources available at school to each student.

Garrison said the film’s message is “for young people to see that it’s okay to really struggle, but they can find their way.” Part of being a teenager is facing big challenges but being able to overcome them.

Figures show that young people face significant mental health issues. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 34, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. One in six teenagers has experienced a major depressive episode and one in three young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 have experienced a mental illness, according to the NAMI. Additionally, one in five young people say the pandemic has had a significant negative impact on their mental health, according to NAMI.

It’s the kind of numbers that inspired Farmer, 22, to get involved with the documentary project while a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology. In Rochester, the Burnt Hills native met Garrison, who was looking to set up a way to showcase positive role models for mental health recovery. Farmer, who is currently completing his final semester as a film major at Chapman University in California, was drawn to the project in part because of his own experiences with mental health issues.

“I’ve struggled with various mental health issues myself and, in fact, at the time of making the documentary, I was going through things that I didn’t understand,” Farmer said.

He and Garrison spent about a year and a half tracking the four people in the film and interviewing mental health officials in the Rochester community.

“It was a very moving and personal journey,” Farmer said. “I got to know each of these people quite well, and they opened up about their very personal struggles and pain points.”

And while the film takes a very relevant, human-centered approach, it also includes science-based information such as descriptions of neurodivergent brains, explaining how different ways of processing information have strengths and weaknesses.

“It opened up a whole area of ​​discussion that I had never had,” Farmer said. “We worked on building the story and creating a tool that we thought would be something really different from anything I had seen when I was in high school.”

Farmer was a swimmer at BH-BL. He cared deeply about academics. He got good grades. He was involved in student government. But even he faced mental health issues. Working on the film helped Farmer learn more about himself.

“I noticed signs of depression in high school that I didn’t have the vocabulary for. Looking back, everything is clear,” Farmer said. “The therapy and other forms of mental health care have really made me a better person and helped me understand how to interact with the world. I wish I could talk honestly about these things sooner.

This honest conversation is exactly what Tricia Clark, school counselor at Shenendehowa High School East, hoped to spark by showing the documentary to students. When she saw a trailer for the film on social media, she suspected it would resonate with the teens in the building.

But Clark couldn’t have anticipated the impact that would come after first showing the film last semester and then facilitating additional rounds of screenings this month as part of Mental Health Awareness Month. (For more information about the film, contact [email protected])

The candid dialogue was eye-opening for teachers like Carlton, who knew his students had struggled but wondered how open and empathetic they would be.

“How vulnerable they were and how honest they were. And the courage to actually share what’s going on in their lives,” Carlton said. “And then to see the beautiful relationships they make with other people and to recognize that I’m not alone in what’s going on. It’s been an eye opener for me.

Almost all of the more than 75 written responses students submitted after watching the documentary spoke to the film’s powerful message, Clark said.

But more than words, the film inspired action, with many students seeking support from school counselors after watching.

“It was a great opportunity to come into the class to let them know we’re here for you on a socio-emotional level,” Clark said. “I think it opened up that level of comfort for them to come see us.”

Garrison, a psychiatrist from the University of Rochester, said proactive approaches to mental health care result in broader reach. He hopes mental health will eventually become as central to the school curriculum as other subjects.

“At some point, there can be a critical mass of awareness and motivation to really see mental health as crucial to the personal development of young people,” Garrison said. “As crucial as math.”

Bello, the Shenendehowa junior who was so moved by his castmates’ response to the film, acknowledged he had his own bouts of darkness, including a relatively recent downward spiral following the loss of a loved one. .

But after watching “Tough Hope” and having such candid conversations with his classmates, he feels less isolated and more optimistic.

“You don’t connect with people like that often – even people you really, really know. You don’t often go to a friend’s house and talk about what’s deep in your heart,” Bello said. “I think the fact that people were able to share, it really grew a community. It helped us connect.

Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

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