Mental Health Champions: Why & How Filmmakers Erik and Chris Ewers, Of The PBS Documentary Hiding In Plain Sight, Are Helping To Champion Mental Wellness
“Find your person.” Find those persons who will listen to you when you are trying to cope with your struggles. It may be a licensed professional, it may be a friend, parent, colleague, teacher, counselor. It may be strangers in a trusted online chat room who are commiserating and empathizing with one another. There is an incredible catharsis that occurs when you talk out your issues. Every single young person in our film felt great — empowered — after doing our on-camera interview.
As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Erik Ewers and Christopher Loren Ewers, directors of the PBS documentary HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT: YOUTH MENTAL ILLNESS.
Erik Ewers is a director and editor of new PBS documentary Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness. He has worked with filmmaker Ken Burns for over 32 years on almost all of Ken’s documentary films on PBS; Erik has also won one personal Emmy Award, served as editor of several Emmy Award winning films, and won an ACE Award (American Cinema Editors) for “best edited documentary.”
Chris Ewers is a director and director of photography working across film and television. Chris and his brother Erik are the owners and co-directors of Ewers Brothers Productions, where they produce feature-length documentary films in partnership with Ken Burns and Florentine Films for national broadcast television, as well as advertising, promotional media, and documentary short films.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Erik and Chris! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Erik: We grew up knowing very little about mental health, but we did know something about mental illness. It ran in our family — causing dysfunctional and toxic relationships — ones that defined me in part as an adult. When you are young, you consider your own life as “normal,” not fully understanding what it is and how it compares to others. I would describe myself as a lonely and sensitive child. I had few friends and preferred to “play” by myself. I remember systematically going down into our basement to play sad songs on my dad’s record player, which would make me sob until I ran out of energy. Then I would go upstairs and continue my day.
Only when you grow up do you realize whether your family was supportive, or toxic, or both. My parents sent me to a psychiatrist for 4 years when I was 7 years old, and while I recall feeling better about blaming myself for everything that happened in our family, but in my teen and young adult years my family was still the same as it was before and I ultimately ended up sliding back into my old childhood self. It culminated in creating potentially destructive relationships with those who love me the most — mainly my daughters, wife and brother Chris — and only through working on this film and processing the stories of our young people in the film did I begin to understand who, and what, I was.
Chris: Erik and I grew up in a suburban town outside of Boston, MA and had a pretty standard childhood for the time. Although we share certain familial experiences, we’re separated by 10-years so our interactions with our parents were different. They divorced when I was 7 (Erik 17) and to be honest I don’t have many memories before that milestone, but my adolescence was a pretty rocky period for me and admittedly, my father, who had to navigate it with me. Nonetheless neither Erik nor I were aware of our mental health struggles because at the time, it wasn’t something that we paid any attention to as individuals and certainly not as a community. Today’s youth have a much different childhood experience; with the onset of the information age, social media, cultural division etc. the pressures they face are more severe and most importantly, constant. I would be able to leave the problems I had at school when I left for the day but kids these days don’t get that separation. Thankfully, they are more aware of the importance of mental health and are beginning to have greater access to support, but we still have a long way to go.
I was at the White House with you when you premiered a powerful documentary helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you are trying to address with this film?
Erik: Quite simply, we are trying to address self awareness of mental health challenges and trauma, however “big” or “small” you may perceive them to be. As one expert says in the film, “We think, ‘well, it’s not that bad.’ Well, compared to who? This is a very personalized illness.” We believe that by witnessing the stories of other young people, both parents and youngsters alike will recognized some aspects of their own experiences, and that self-awareness that stigma makes us keep it hidden — even to ourselves — will allow our viewers to take that first step. As we say in the film, “The first, and often most difficult step, is to simply start talking about it.”
Chris: We begin the film with a quote from James Baldwin; “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” This speaks directly to the systemic inequality between our physical and mental health. We accept physical illness as a universal experience and yet we “other” the experience of mental illness because we have yet to collectively acknowledge that it is something that affects us all. The statistics say that 1 in 4 Americans suffer from a mental illness but those numbers are misleading. There isn’t a single one of us who hasn’t experienced mental health struggles directly or indirectly, whether it’s ourselves, a family member, a colleague or a neighbor much the same way that none of us have lived a life free from physical illness. We must normalize the experience of mental illness by speaking openly and honestly about how it affects us all, and that’s what these amazing individuals do in the film.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
Erik: As stated in question #1, when Ken Burns asked us to make this film, I believe he knew that I had struggled with mental health challenges most of my life. Ken worked with me for 32+ years, and even personally helped me through a mental health crisis or two. He knew Chris and I were the right fit, and we knew that it was critical to address this crisis in America, and retrospectively we now know we needed to do this personally. Making this film has helped us immeasurably, and we only hoped it will do the same for others. Since the film aired, the personal feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and inspiring.
Chris: Quite simply this is the most important conversation that we can having right now. We have yet to reach the tipping point with mental health awareness. We saw it happen decades ago with HIV and Cancer, once we were able to end the stigma around those diseases we were able to move forward with the important work of funding research, developing better treatments and most importantly, ending the isolation that prevented people from getting the help that they needed.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
Erik: The “Aha Moment” for me was a walk that I had taken with Patrick Kennedy, a leading mental health advocate with his own personal struggles. We had already done his interview for the film as an expert, and we had interviewed Dr. Thomas Insel, former director of the NIMH. Patrick stopped and said to me, “If I have one thing to add about how to go about making your film, I would strongly suggest the following: In my decades of experience with advocacy, I realized that you MUST talk about the ‘bad’ first. If you start with the ‘good,’ no one is really going to listen.” (The “bad” being experiences with mental illness, and the “good” being treatments and empathy). It became our mantra and our approach to the film. Mental health is typically addressed with overwhelming positivity and encouragement, and has steered clear from talking about how difficult it can be. It is, perhaps, one of the biggest issues with how our nation has approached the topic. Without discussing the bad, we can’t appreciate the good. We created a film that honestly stares mental illness in the face — literally — and tells us what it really is, what it looks like, where it came from, and most importantly how it feels. The willingness of our 23 young people to share their most personal moments of hopelessness and crisis actually promotes relatability in others, and that shared experience allows us to speak out ourselves.
Chris: My wife and I have 2 children, one of whom has experienced their own mental health struggles from a very early age. We, like many parents, didn’t know how to best listen to her, understand her needs and support her so she wasn’t getting better, in fact she was getting worse. It wasn’t until we started this project almost 4-years ago that, through the process of hearing each of the film subject’s lived experience, she and I began to better understand our child, her needs and were able to give her the support that she needed to best face her challenges. If it could happen to us, it can happen for anybody. That was quite an “ah-ha” moment.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
Erik: I have my own therapist now as an adult for the past 3 years, and she has helped me better understand who I am and how to manage my symptoms that were destroying the quality of my life. Also, therapist Kee Dunning in our film is one of the most amazing people I have ever met. She has inspired all of us with love and more love, with support, empathy, advice, and appreciation. She has gone way above and beyond the call of duty to help us, and our interviewees celebrate this film, and most importantly, each other.
Chris: It’s incredibly important to find your “someone.” We’ve seen this over and over again. There’s a moment when you realize that you’re not alone, you have someone who understands you and with whom you can be truly honest. That person doesn’t have to be a professional, but the existence of that person is crucial to our success, whether it be on our path to mental wellness or something else. I’ve had several people like that in my life at different times for different reasons. It’s up to us to try to recognize them when they present themselves which can be a difficult task.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
Erik: Chris and I believe that number is much much higher. We have concluded that everyone has a mental health condition to some degree, whether it is within ourselves, or in our children, friends, family, colleagues… It has affected everyone. We believe this because, as Kee Dunning says in the film, “Mental illness is just a part of life. It’s that simple.” We can all benefit from mental health. The stigma comes from the never ending public perception that it makes you a crazy, unstable human being. We see psychotic people on city streets and we all judge them, and then we ultimately lump anyone who is consumed by their thoughts and feelings as the same. But there is a real human being in that psychotic person — one who isn’t even aware of their actions, and one who would certainly prefer to be informed, stable and happy. Stigma also comes from a complete lack of mental health education in this country. How can we understand something if we are not made aware of its reality? Not educated about it in our schools? It’s ridiculous.
Chris: We naturally fear what we don’t understand. Without proper mental health education, without honest public discourse, without policy changes in the criminal justice system and certainly without individual acknowledgment that none of us are immune to it, we as individuals, as communities and as a nation will never get beyond the stigma. It needs to start with the individual, though; once we can recognize it in ourselves, we begin to accept it in others. That’s how real change happens.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
Erik: That is a loaded question. My immediate answer is to do whatever Patrick Kennedy and the Kennedy Forum is doing to make actual change on a public policy level. He has literally dedicated his life to this. There is no one better to listen to in our minds. From our standpoint, we need to get insurance companies to recognize the obvious — that our brains are a part of our body, and just like other parts of our bodies they can be unwell. Sometimes they need medication, and other therapies that will promote wellness in the same way we treat physical ailments. Secondly, we must assert mental health education early on in our school systems. Education is critical to keep us informed (just like diet is discussed in schools with children to combat obesity and diabetes). Patrick calls for implementing “a check-up from the neck-up” in our schools. Early detection and early intervention are key to preventing major mental health issues in the future. Thirdly, we must demand that our government invest in mental health, because the returns on that investment will dramatically decrease expenditures in mental health care, it will promote a stronger American workforce, and it will reduce arrests and help decrease the criminal population in jails and prisons across the country (just a few examples). And lastly, it is universally accepted that our prisons have become mental healthcare facilities. This is not justice, especially for minority populations who are grossly under-served by mental healthcare options within their communities.
Chris: First and most importantly we need to stop incarcerating our mentally ill. The largest mental health care provider in the country is the jail and prison system. We’re responding to a health crisis with police which is unfair to everyone involved. We’re beginning to see it in places across the nation, a great example being the Jail Diversion Program in Miami Dade county. But there are also grassroots organizations that are taking responsibility for their own community’s need for mental health support, all of which are excellent examples that need to be replicated town to town, state to state.
What are your 5 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
- “Find your person.” Find those persons who will listen to you when you are trying to cope with your struggles. It may be a licensed professional, it may be a friend, parent, colleague, teacher, counselor. It may be strangers in a trusted online chat room who are commiserating and empathizing with one another. There is an incredible catharsis that occurs when you talk out your issues. Every single young person in our film felt great — empowered — after doing our on-camera interview.
- “Be that person for someone else.” Just as each interviewee felt great telling us their stories, every single one of them not only want to help others, most of them are entering the mental healthcare profession in some capacity — from being a peer support specialist to a forensic scientist.
- Acceptance. I try to remind myself — even daily if necessary — that I have mental health challenges, and that I have to always keep them in mind and in context as I negotiate my daily interactions with others. When I find myself slipping towards an emotional crisis, I must utilize my knowledge and acceptance of myself to move me forward with a more positive and calm mindset.
- Medication. Despite the stigma surrounding meds, there is NOTHING wrong with requiring medication to help keep you in control of yourself. Period. I have been taking Zoloft/Sertraline ever since I became a father 23 years ago. It changed my life trajectory, yet it hasn’t changed who I am.
- Chris: Therapy and medication are excellent treatments for our varied and incredibly unique mental needs. We take medication and change our diet when we have high cholesterol, we go to physical therapy weekly when we have a joint or muscle injury, speaking to a therapist and taking medication for our depression or anxiety is no different. In addition, exercise and healthy eating are equally as good for your mental health as they are for your physical health.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
Erik: NAMI, NIMH, MHA, and OneMind are particularly great resources. I loved Sarah Vinson’s book “Social (In)justice and mental health” as a way to better understand inequity between different racial populations, and I found the singer/songwriter Jewel’s book “Never Broken: Songs are Only Half the Story” particularly helpful to my own realizations. Lastly, one of the best books I read was Pete Earley’s book “Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness” a literal page-turner. He and his son are heroes to me.
Chris: Ditto. I’m also energized by the recent trend of elite athletes like Naomi Osaka, Michael Phelps and others who are placing their mental health above their public expectations. There’s no better message to our youth that we don’t have to bend to the will of public opinion or popular culture, rather we need to be our own advocates.
If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Erik: I would tell them to simply do your part to contribute to solving the problem in your own way, and in your own community. Have compassion and empathy for that person in psychosis on the city street. If someone is emotionally distressed, ask them if you can help them in some way. LISTEN to your children, really listen to how they feel, and don’t discount them. Be supportive in efforts to establish education in your community’s school systems. Don’t be afraid of the topic, or try to shine some positive-only light on it. We should all do this because it not only helps to diminish the impact mental illness has on our society, but it also simply makes us good people.
Chris: I think the best thing we all can do this instant is to ask ourselves “what happened” to a person rather than “what’s wrong” with that person when we encounter people in need, or simply someone who might be having a bad day. If we pass someone on the street in the throes of a psychotic break we’re more likely to cross the street than stop and help and it’s the most obvious example of our collective double standard. We have generational misconceptions of mental illness which we need to break and it starts with us, right now.
How can our readers follow you online?
Erik: We have a website at www.ewersbrothers.com. Our film is currently available on pbs.org (search for “Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness) and also on AmazonPrime. We also hope to get our film into school systems across America, breaking the film up into teachable, curriculum segments.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Mental Health Champions: Why & How Filmmakers Erik and Chris Ewers, Of The PBS Documentary Hiding… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.