Naperville filmmaker's message: Anxiety sufferers aren't alone
Kelsey Sante of Naperville spent her high school years hiding her anxiety.
Now she's bringing the panicked feeling of the common mental disorder to the screen in an artistic effort to encourage others to get help.
Sante, a 21-year-old senior at Columbia College Chicago, is wrapping up a short film called "Reach," which gives a theatrical representation of what it's like to undergo a panic attack and shows how one girl fights the condition.
"Reach" is a senior thesis for the 2012 Neuqua Valley High School graduate, who is connecting her love of film with her desire to improve the lives of people with anxiety and depression. After giving it a go at film festivals, Sante and fellow Columbia students who've worked on "Reach" hope the film can play a role in education about common mental health problems.
"I was shocked at how many people my age do struggle with anxiety and depression," Sante said. (The National Institute of Mental Health says 25 percent of 13- to 18-year-olds experience anxiety disorder during adolescence, 5.9 percent of them to a severe degree). "It can be really hard to explain how that feels."
So instead of just talking about it -- which experts say is a helpful step to reduce stigma -- Sante is bringing anxiety to a film, using her favorite form of storytelling to expose the reality of the condition.
"That's the whole reason why I wanted to do film in the first place, is just to give voices to stories that don't normally get heard," Sante said.
"We wanted to take this thing (anxiety) that can be so hard, especially for teenagers and adolescents that are starting to deal with the deeper issues, and explain it and show the younger people that they're not alone; there are plenty of other people who are struggling with this."
When Sante's anxiety would strike beyond her control during high school, she'd just want to be alone.
"When you're starting to have a panic attack, you need to be with other people, but I would isolate myself," she said.
She's learned others can ground an anxious mind and bring its racing, worst-case-scenario thoughts back to reality. But within the halls of Neuqua, she hid to hide her worries. She'd get stuck in her thoughts, the ones that made her feel like she was in "a large amount of trouble" even when she wasn't.
Throat closing in, heart rate increasing, head spinning, muscles tensing, temperature rising. That's what it feels like to have a panic attack, said Katie Connolly, a licensed clinical professional counselor who runs two treatment programs at Alexian Brothers Center for Mental Health in Arlington Heights.
For some people, panic attacks are situation-specific, Connolly said, cropping up only when a person encounters something they fear, say, heights or tight spaces. People without clinical anxiety or panic disorder can manage those attacks by avoiding the feared situations.
But when panic hits without warning or before activities that can't be skipped -- such as driving -- that's when the condition needs treatment, Connolly said.
The main character in "Reach," Hannah, is experiencing anxiety at a dire level. Columbia filmmakers researched the condition for the perfect "visual metaphors" to bring its symptoms to the screen, said Ryan Kerr, a 25-year-old senior who is director of photography and a co-producer of the film.
In one scene, Hannah is underwater, symbolizing a struggle to reach the surface of deep, negative thoughts, or a fight to avoid drowning in anxiety. In another, Kerr said, she's being suffocated by cellophane, symbolic of the fact that anxiety can result in shortness of breath and can be caused by claustrophobia.
Filming locations were visually metaphoric, too, especially an abandoned church in Gary, Indiana.
"It's so beautiful and has potential to be a marvelous place, but it's in shambles. We thought that really represented someone who is struggling with anxiety. We wanted to bring our character there," Sante said about the chapel.
"People with anxiety often kind of look OK on the outside but feel like they're falling apart on the inside. So we feel like it fits."
In the end, Hannah confides in a friend.
"The idea is that you need to reach out to other people because it's so much easier to deal with these battles when you're not dealing with it yourself," Sante said.
Sante saw that lesson reinforced on the website of To Write Love On Her Arms. The organization is a nonprofit resource for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide, and founder Jamie Tworkowski said he's watched inspiration strike for mental illness sufferers when they realize others can relate to their pain.
"So much of the problem as it relates to mental health and addiction and suicide is that people feel alone and people feel like they can't talk about their struggles," he said. "We're fans of people breaking that silence and telling their story, and telling these kinds of stories in different ways."
"Reach" is Sante's effort to tell her anxiety story now that she's in a more stable phase. She said she still sees a therapist and focuses on the coping strategies she's learned, such as deep breathing, when she feels worry creeping in.
"I definitely deal with it a lot better than I did when I was 16," she said.
Tworkowski said To Write Love On Her Arms always recommends people seek professional help from a licensed counselor. He also promotes the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-7255 and the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Crisis hotline staffers often direct callers to counselors such as Connolly from Alexian Brothers, who can identify what's going on in an anxiety sufferer's mind and how to overcome it.
"I may be more predisposed to anxiety, that's how my body is programmed, so how can I both experience that anxiety and manage it in a way that's not limiting my life?" Connolly said. "When I have worried thoughts that I can't get rid of, what can I do to work through it?"
Aside from consulting a counselor, Tworkowski recommends the same effort at making connections that Sante suggests in "Reach," saying friends can be an important part of the solution.
"We love to encourage people just to participate in relationships where they can be open about their struggles and about their questions and their pain," Tworkowski said.
"A lot of it starts with that dialogue and asking each other how we're doing and really meaning it, really making space for the answer."
As Sante's senior thesis, "Reach" is due in March. As a chapter of her life, she says the worst of her struggle with anxiety is behind her.
"I still deal with it," Sante said. "But I've definitely gone through recovery."
Anxiety and depression: Stats, symptoms, helpThe conditions of anxiety and depression portrayed in "Reach" are among the most common mental disorders in the country.
What is anxiety? Excessive worry about a variety of everyday occurrences for at least six months. Types include:
• Panic disorder: Sudden and repeated attacks of fear
• Social anxiety disorder: Excessive fear of being with other people
• Post-traumatic stress disorder: Repeated feelings of extreme fear even when not threatened, beginning after a terrifying ordeal
• Obsessive-compulsive disorder: Repeatedly or ritually checking things to try to quell frequent, upsetting thoughts
• Phobias of specific things or situations
Anxiety becomes a diagnosable condition when it interferes with a person's daily functioning.
Prevalence: 25 percent of 13- to 18-year-olds experience anxiety during adolescence (5.9 percent to a severe degree); 18 percent of adults experience anxiety each year (4.1 percent severe)
Symptoms: Panic attack symptoms include a pounding or racing heart, tingly or numb hands, chest or stomach pain, sweating, breathing problems or dizziness. Anxiety symptoms include fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, difficulty swallowing, trembling, twitching, irritability and hot flashes.
What is depression?Severe, persistent feelings of being sad, empty, hopeless, worthless, irritable, fatigued, helpless. Types include:
• Major depression: Severe depressive symptoms that interfere with ability to work, sleep, eat and enjoy life for one to three months
• Persistent depressive disorder: Depressive symptoms lasting at least two years
• Psychotic depression: Severe depression, plus a form of psychosis, such as delusions or hallucination
• Postpartum depression: Serious depression following the hormonal and physical changes of giving birth
• Seasonal affective disorder: Depression occurring during winter when there is less natural sunlight
• Bipolar disorder: Periods of depression alternating with extreme highs called mania
Prevalence: 10 percent of 13- to 18-year-olds and 6.6 percent of adults experience major depression each year
Symptoms: Loss of interest, decreased energy, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, insomnia or excessive sleeping, overeating or appetite loss, thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts, and headaches, cramps or digestive issues
• Tell a doctor about persistent mental symptoms or seek a psychiatrist or counselor.
• Therapists often recommend a combination of antidepressant medication and talk therapy. Medication helps correct biochemical imbalances in the brain. Talk therapy helps develop coping strategies against anxieties or work through troubled relationships.
• 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.
Sources: National Institute of Mental Health, Alexian Brothers Center for Mental Health