Third in a series about teens and mental health in Orange County.
Teachers get a lot of mail. For Anaheim Canyon High School art teacher Alex Graham, most of it was junk mail that he’d throw away.
However, something about the Directing Change Program and Film Contest stood out.
At first, Graham was cynical about whether his film students would even be interested in the contest. Six years later, more than 1,000 students have come through the program, and he’s not so cynical anymore.
“It’s a transformative kind of thing,” said Graham, “for me and the students.”
The Directing Change Program, which is funded by California’s Mental Health Services Act, aims to address the mental health challenges of young people through the creation of public service announcement (PSA) films. The purpose of the program is to educate youths about the warning signs for suicide and how to support a friend who may be affected.
These powerful short films are created for youths, by youths. The philosophy is that minds change by applying knowledge as opposed to passively sitting in an assembly or reading a flier.
“When you are forced to create something,” said Devin Saragosa-Harris, the Directing Change program director, “you get much higher engagement.”
Graham also uses Directing Change to help the students dissect technical and storytelling aspects of filmmaking. He shows the class some of the best PSAs ever made and some of the worst.
The film contest rules are simple. Any California middle, high school or college student between the ages of 14 and 25 is eligible. Community-based organizations can also enter the contest.
Students compete against others in their region. Regional winners then vie against the top films from across the state culminating in an awards ceremony.
Contestants can enter their films in six categories: “Suicide Prevention,” “Mental Health Matters,” “Through the Lens of Culture,” “SanaMente” (a category for Spanish-language shorts), “Animated Short” and “Walk in Our Shoes.”
Directing Change provides the educational material, and the students, armed with statistics and facts, brainstorm film ideas in groups.
Graham tries not to offer too many instructions for the PSAs. He simply encourages students to avoid stereotypes and clichés like a teenager with a bottle of pills and a knife. He wants them to think more critically about their experiences and how they can honestly help young people.
Nick Jackson, a 2016 graduate of Canyon High and a three-time participant in Directing Change, said that through the process of creating the film mental illness became easier to talk about.
An evaluation conducted by the University of Chicago showed that Directing Change participants were more willing to talk about suicide and also displayed a lower stigma about mental health than those who didn’t partake in the program.
Additionally, participants were better able to identify suicide warning signs and more comfortable encouraging others to get help.
One former participant told Saragosa-Harris that while in college, the student saw warning signs of serious depression in a roommate. The student knew to ask directly if the roommate was thinking about suicide. It turned out that the roommate had been suicidal, and the student was able to intervene because of what was learned through Directing Change.
In Jackson’s senior year his film, “Naivete,” placed third statewide. The film used the stigma of wearing glasses as a metaphor to discuss and dispel the shame of mental illness.
“It was [an] enlightening and humbling experience,” said Jackson. “It’s not about how great your film is. There’s a larger subject at stake.”
Graham said he believes many of his students are struggling more than it seems, and he often hears stories about self-harm.
”It looks like it’s getting bleaker,” he said. “More often than not they come up to me because they have a friend they are concerned about, but they are pretty fragile themselves.”
In the end Graham doesn’t really care about the quality of the films produced in his class.
“I want them to know there are a lot of us out there that care,” said Graham. “They aren’t alone.”