By Pat KRAMER
On Friday, May 20, the documentary “Voices” screened at Verdugo Hills High School in Tujunga showcasing three examples of people with psychosis and the effect their behavior has had on their families. “Voices” was directed and produced by independent filmmaker and physician Gary Tsai whose mother suffers from schizophrenia. The screening was part of a community forum focusing on mental illness, help and hope in conjunction with Mental Illness Awareness Month. The event was organized by the Changing Minds Club, a student organization at VHHS and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Los Angeles Community Council.
Mental illnesses are common, affecting 25%, or one in four, adults and youth. Stigma and resulting discrimination prevent many people from seeking help and treatment. Without treatment, the outcomes are poor and could include dropping out of school, being unemployed, involvement with criminal justice, homelessness and suicide. But with treatment and community support, people with mental illnesses can recover and lead full lives. Serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year.
“Voices” is Tsai’s first film and a culmination of his interest in shining a light on marginalized and underserved groups. After coping with his mother’s illness, he experienced the stigma and criminalization that commonly accompanies serious mental illness and he emerged with a passion for advocacy and improving the lives of this vulnerable population. He believes that the powerful interplay between media and mental health can change hearts and minds.
The film features the stark and intimate portraits of Sharon, Thomas and Aaron by illuminating the challenges, realities and often complex emotions and choices that surround people with psychotic mental illness and those who love them. Winning many awards for its compassionate depiction of the mentally ill, “Voices” debuted in 2014 on PBS and has since been screened nationwide.
Tsai does not offer any conclusive answers; rather, he opens the door to discussion of the problems that exist in our society, the lack of resources for the mentally ill, and the life and death scenarios that evolve for these people in our communities today.
In Sharon’s story, it is her son whom we hear from as he speaks about being raised by a woman suffering with schizophrenia and depression and the subsequent loss of his childhood as he became her caretaker. On camera for short segments, Sharon appears shy, restless and confused as she tries to maintain a focus on those around her while it appears she is hearing other voices within.
In the case of Thomas, a chronically homeless man living on the streets of San Francisco, the camera brings out his childlike sense of joy and wonderment of life as he forages for food to survive. As the camera shows him sleeping by the roadside covered with a tarp, we see people dropping off containers of food for him. Although it’s unclear what his diagnosis is, each person who is interviewed said he is kind, generous, and always respectful of others.
Aaron’s story is clearly the most disturbing of all. After being diagnosed with mental illness as a young adult, Aaron refused treatment and gradually became disoriented and delusional. Eventually, he moved into the woods of Northern California where he later shot and killed two Mendocino County officials, and then was gunned down by law enforcement.
In an effort to help create awareness about mental illness, the Changing Minds Club of Verdugo Hills High School provides education and advocacy through the school year. By making it “okay” for students to admit they are mentally ill, this student organization is able to give them safe harbor during what, otherwise, could be a very difficult period in their lives. Their annual fundraiser, the NAMI Walk, L.A. County, takes place on Oct. 1 at Grand Park in Los Angeles.
NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness. Members of NAMI are families, friends and people living with mental illnesses including major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder.
Starting on June 14, NAMI Glendale will offer its NAMI Family-to-Family Education Program every Tuesday from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. in Burbank. To enroll, contact Letty Baldaro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about “Voices,” visit www.voicesdocumentary.com.
For more information about the NAMI Walk, visit www.NAMIWalks.org/LosAngelesCounty or NAMI Glendale at www.namiglendale.org.