CLIFTON PARK – Before agreeing to show more than 550 high school students a documentary about four young New Yorkers’ struggles with mental illness, Shenendehowa High School counselors and health teachers sat down to consider how the screening might be received.
“We talked about the good and the bad of showing a video, and the good and the 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 be open?”
The answer was a resounding yes.
Following one showing of the film earlier this week, students opened up about the depth of their own struggles, said Ori Bello, a 16-year-old junior at Shenendehowa. The discussion didn’t glorify self-harm or depression, Bello said. Rather, it showed the students there is hope — and they are not alone.
“I definitely felt kind of relieved in the sense that [other students] were not only willing to confide in everyone and share something that personal and that deep, but also the fact that they opened that door,” Bello said. “Hearing the amount of people that we did say that they attempted [self-harm], but following that up with saying they are feeling better now, that felt great. That felt really good.”
Such is the message of “Tough Hope,” a 43-minute documentary by 2017 Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School graduate Kyle Farmer. The film tracks four young people in the Rochester area whose depth of depression ultimately resulted in hospitalization. And while the documentary does include very frank talk about their struggles — from the high school volleyball player to the transgender individual, who both dealt with issues of self-harm — the emphasis is on their recoveries.
After finding focus in music or skiing, and discovering purpose as a camp counselor or social worker, all four of the documentary’s subjects are currently leading happy lives. A powerful moment in 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 didn’t survive.
From not seeing her family every day to not being able to tell her mom how much she loves her to not being able to teach her nephew baseball, “I wouldn’t be able to lead a life that I was given,” Sacchitella said.
The four stories in the film represent the kind of positive role modeling that Dr. David Garrison, a psychiatrist at the University of Rochester who partnered with Farmer in the making of the film, said is crucial.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, meaning schools such as Shenendehowa will be emphasizing social and emotional well-being in the classroom. But it’s critical that mental health awareness efforts emphasize positive recovery rather than devolve into amplifying shared agonies, Garrison said.
“There is a growing awareness of mental health problems but there isn’t enough good role modeling of how to handle it,” Garrison said.
That’s why Garrison said he was encouraged to learn that Shenendehowa had two responding service providers on hand for each screening and discussion of the film. The staff also distributed information to each student about the school’s available mental health resources.
Garrison said the message of the film is “for young people to see that it’s OK to be really struggling, but they can find their way through it. Part of being a teenager is dealing with big challenges but being able to get through it.”
Numbers show that young people face significant mental health challenges. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. One in six adolescents have experienced a major depressive episode and one in three young adults ages 18 to 25 have experienced a mental illness, according to NAMI. What’s more, one in five young people report that the pandemic has had a significant negative impact on their mental health, according to NAMI.
These are the kinds of numbers that inspired Farmer, 22, to get involved with the documentary project while he was a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology. In Rochester, the Burnt Hills native met Garrison, who was looking to put together a way to showcase positive role models of mental health recovery. Farmer, who is now finishing his final semester as a film student at Chapman University in California, was drawn to the project in part because of his own experiences with mental health challenges.
“I myself have struggled with various mental health issues, and actually at the time of making the documentary I was going through some things that I didn’t understand,” Farmer said.
He and Garrison spent roughly a year and half following the four individuals in the film as well as interviewing mental health leaders in the Rochester community.
“This was a very emotional, personal journey,” Farmer said. “I got to know each of these individuals pretty well, and they opened up about their very personal struggles and their low points.”
And while the film takes a very relatable, human-centered approach, it also includes scientific information such as descriptions of neurodivergent brains, explaining how different ways of processing information come with strengths and weaknesses.
“It opened up a whole realm of discussion I never had,” Farmer said. “We worked on building the story and putting together a tool that we thought would be something genuinely different from anything that 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 challenges. Working on the film helped Farmer learn more about himself.
“I noticed some signs of depression in high school that I didn’t have the vocabulary for. Looking back it’s all clear,” Farmer said. “Therapy and other forms of mental health care have really made me into a better person and helped me understand how to interact with the world. I wish that I had been able to honestly talk about those things earlier.”
That honest conversation is exactly what Tricia Clark, a school counselor at Shenendehowa High School East, had been hoping to spur by showing the documentary to students. When she saw a trailer for the film on social media, she suspected it would resonate with teenagers 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. (To learn more about the film, contact [email protected])
The frank dialogue was revelatory for teachers like Carlton, who knew her students had been struggling but had questions about how open and empathetic they would be.
“How vulnerable they were and how honest they were. And the courage to actually share what is going on in their life,” Carlton said. “And then to see the beautiful connections they make with other people and recognizing I’m not alone in what is happening. It was eye-opening.”
Nearly all of the more than 75 written responses students have submitted after seeing the documentary have spoken to the film’s powerful message, Clark said.
But even more than words, the film has inspired action, with many students seeking support of school counselors after watching.
“It was a great opportunity to get into the classroom to let them know we’re here for you on a social-emotional level,” Clark said. “I think it opened that comfort level for them coming to see us.”
Garrison, the University of Rochester psychiatrist, said proactive approaches to mental health care result in a broader reach. His hope is that eventually mental health becomes as central to school curriculum as other subjects.
“At some point there can be a critical mass of awareness and motivation to really look at mental health as crucial to the self-development of young people,” Garrison said. “As crucial as math.”
Bello, the Shenendehowa junior who was so moved by his fellow students’ response to the film, acknowledged that he’s 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 that you really, really know. You don’t often go to a friend and talk about what is in the depths of 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.