Naperville film becomes 'starting point' for suicide prevention
The silence about suicide can be deafening, mental health advocates say.
"The more you get involved in mental health and suicide prevention work, the more it becomes clear that the single biggest obstacle is silence," said Carl Evans, director of programs and operations for a nonprofit group called Hope For The Day. "It's this silence that makes people walk around thinking that they're alone with these problems and these issues, and it continues itself."
A new film shot and produced in Naperville is trying to end that silence.
"I'm Fine" is a short film produced by Naperville-based Nickel A Day Films and Hope For The Day. And it's a film with a mission.
"We wanted to do something more than a documentary that confronted suicide and mental health without it being an after-school special that trivialized the topic into a plot point," Evans said. "We wondered if we could make something engaging that didn't sacrifice relevant and important information about mental health."
The way to solve the stifling silence around mental illness is obvious, yet painful and difficult to attempt, Evans says. It starts with conversations. But these aren't easy, everyday conversations. They're touchy talks about a topic shrouded in stigma, cultural taboos and social barriers.
"We intend to provide a narrative that is a starting point," he said.
The film is complete and producers are preparing for a screening in the Naperville area, likely sometime next month. But they have bigger plans than the silver screen for their piece, which delves into the struggles that lead young people to consider, attempt and sometimes, sadly, complete the act.
"What they've come up with is a direct example of how teens can cope in not-so-obvious ways," said Lisa Gangi of Naperville, who acted as the mother of one of the film's main characters. "It gives examples of how teens might be in crisis and what some possibilities might be to help."
'I'm Fine,' or not?
In "I'm Fine," a "smart, pretty, young teen" kills herself; "It came out of nowhere," said AnnMarie Parker of Nickel A Day Films.
The film follows the girl's twin brother and their friends as the teens try to cope. One girl, specifically, begins to struggle despite "everything going for her" because she's so overwhelmed, Parker says. The girl withdraws socially and her grades slip, but she's tricked into expressing herself through art therapy.
"She realizes others have these issues," Parker said. "She realizes, 'I can break down and let go and I'll be OK. There are other people like me and I don't have to be ashamed that I have a mental health disorder.'"
It's a realization film producers hope other teens will have when they watch "I'm Fine" in school.
Hope For The Day founder and Long Grove native Jonny Boucher gives talks about depression and mental health awareness at schools in the suburbs and around the country. Before he appears, the organization sends each school a packet of materials so educators can prepare students for his visit and the weighty topics he'll address, Evans said.
The plan is for "I'm Fine" to be added to that packet -- after it debuts at several film festivals first, Parker said.
The film will be entered in the Chicago International Social Change Film Festival and others, she said, but it missed the deadline for the eighth annual Naperville International Film Festival, which was earlier this month.
The film stays true to its Naperville roots, though, as many of the characters and plot elements are based on true stories from Naperville-area families. Film producers met with the families during the past two years, and Gangi, mother of a 14-year-old, said their struggles ring true.
"I'm very familiar with some of these challenges," she said.
The concerns arising from Naperville and DuPage County center on pressure -- and lots of it, Evans said.
"Pressure of success is something that tends to dominate a lot of the traffic we're getting out of that area," Evans said. "It's a subtle issue and it's more likely to be silent, with kids trying to cope with performing and meeting expectations placed on them externally and by themselves."
Feeling immense pressure to be perfect may not, in itself, be a diagnosable mental health condition, Evans said. But left unaddressed, it could lead to mental illness.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 4,600 young people in America between ages 10 and 24 take their own lives each year.
"In Naperville and in DuPage County in general, youth are hit particularly hard," Evans said.
The film is targeted at a high school audience, but Parker said it can be a talking tool with even younger children, such as her 7-year-old son. He was interested in the film, so she prepared him for the topic and let him watch.
Watching "I'm Fine" still makes Parker choke up, so it's likely to be an emotional ride for parents. But the good that can come from viewing the film and discussing the topic it covers is worth the discomfort, she says.
"Don't hide from mental health issues," Parker said. "It's just causing more problems."
• If you or a loved one are in crisis, visit the nearest emergency room or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-7255 or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Mental health: A growing concernIn an occasional series, the Daily Herald explores how the suburbs respond to conditions of the mind. Today, we examine a film that aims to start difficult conversations about teen suicide and mental health problems.