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New documentary 'Hiding in Plain Sight' sheds light on youth mental health crisis

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Young people today are juggling a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT")

COLLIN: As a teenager, and as far as stress levels go, I feel like it's a lot different than maybe what I could imagine it used to be. I feel like the world that my generation is inheriting isn't a pleasant one.

XAVIER: My racial background, being Native American, Black and Mexican - when I went to this one school, I didn't really fit in with any particular groups. It was just 'cause, like, I look Black, but I don't.

SUMMERS: Those are the voices of Xavier and Collin, two young people featured in the new documentary, "Hiding In Plain Sight." It's an investigation of the mental health challenges of youth in the U.S., which Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has flagged as a, quote, "real and widespread problem." Erik Ewers is one of the directors of the documentary, and Dr. Sarah Vinson is a psychiatrist who treats children, and she appears in this documentary. Welcome to you both.

ERIK EWERS: Thank you for having us.

SARAH VINSON: Yeah, thank you.

SUMMERS: Erik, I want to start with you. To your mind, why is this challenge so stark right now? Why focus on this crisis in a documentary?

EWERS: Well, I think there's so much political divisiveness in our country. You know, there are strains on families like never before. Then, all of a sudden, we have COVID hit. It's just an overwhelming situation for our youth. And, you know, I think they're often not heard. And that was literally the reason why we suddenly turned around and said, we have to stop interviewing experts. We need to interview the youth of America.

SUMMERS: Dr. Vinson, many of the experts in this documentary repeatedly talked about the importance of early intervention to having a good mental health outcome for a kid. If you're a parent or you're any person who has any sort of relationship with kids, how can you tell what is explainable, normal moodiness coming from a kid in your life and the type of things that are concerning?

VINSON: So every child - every adolescent is their own baseline. And the best way to know is to know that child - know who they are. Spend quality time with them. And that's going to give you the knowledge you need to be able to recognize when sleep changes, when emotional reactivity goes up, when motivation wanes, when they're not as excited about talking about their friends as they used to be. When you talk about mental health at its core, it's a change in thoughts, feelings or behavior. And so when you know your child's thoughts, feelings and behavior, it's easier to pick up on those differences.

SUMMERS: In the best-case scenario - say, I'm a parent and I'm concerned because I've seen something worrisome about the way my child is acting or talking - how should I or how should a parent start that conversation?

VINSON: So one of the things that I think is really sometimes undervalued is how important it is to just be present. There's something to be said for truly listening. I think that sometimes there's this tendency to not value the voice of children as much because we think that they don't have the language or they don't have the insight or they don't have the life experience to really put things in perspective. But one of the things that I really love about the way that the Ewers Brothers did this film is that it shows how meaningful and how thoughtful and how powerful centering the voice of children can be. And I think that that's something that, as a society, we fail to do quite routinely, and that that happens in households as well.

SUMMERS: I'm glad you brought that up. Erik, one thing that I wrestled with while watching this documentary is that, in many ways, I feel like young people have just so much more information about mental health than previous generations did, and many of them are so open about talking about it. Yet, on the other hand, some of the people in this documentary talk about the feeling of isolation in their own experience. How do you explain that difference - that kids who have so much knowledge and experience with mental health can also feel so alone?

EWERS: I think there's really a mixed bag of - when you speak of education and information on mental health, yes, there is much more openness and talking, generally speaking, and kids are familiar. But I think they're also familiar because there is a crisis - not because they're getting educated properly. Even - we're trying to get our film into schools across America. And while there's a great urgency and need from teachers, there's a lot of pushback saying, well, our community - someone's going to complain, and they're not - we're not going to be able to have that in the school system because someone's not going to like it.

And yes, it's a hard topic, but if you don't look at it in the face - if you don't see what it really is, where it possibly comes from, and especially how it feels - plain and simple, stigma is alive and well in this country for young people. Even if they're a more outspoken generation - which I agree 100% with you - they are still very reticent to bring up these things because they're so personalized. They're so intensely connected with their trauma and life experiences. I mean, who wants to tell their best friend that their father beats them or they're verbally abused or neglected?

SUMMERS: I want to hear from one of the other young people in your film, Billie. And Billie talked incredibly openly about her transition journey.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT")

BILLIE: I started to wear more feminine clothes, started to wear makeup every day. It was good at first, but the day I went to school with pink hair, my car ended up getting vandalized, and someone wrote queer on the back windshield.

SUMMERS: Dr. Vinson, what would you say to a young person who is starting down this path and they're looking for support?

VINSON: What's so critical is that what you communicate is not just with what you say, but with what you do. So in a situation like this, yes, it's important to let her know that you're there for her, that you love her unapologetically, and that you are in her corner. But the big thing is that that sense of safety and security in the school setting needs to be restored. And so the advocacy that the parent undertakes at the school, the school's response - the actions that they take in order to make it clear that this is an environment where that kind of behavior is not tolerated - is going to be really, really critical.

SUMMERS: Erik, as I understand, you're a parent, right?

EWERS: Yes.

SUMMERS: You know, many of us are parents. Many of us have kids in our lives one way or another. I guess I want to know - after making this four-hour documentary and the years that you spent talking with these incredibly thoughtful young people, what did you learn about kids and mental health that has been useful in your own interactions with young folks - with - maybe even with your kids?

EWERS: One hundred percent with my kids. I'll try and get through saying this without choking up 'cause I realized that, before this film, I didn't listen to my children. I was much more of a - your - you know, you-don't-feel-that-way, I'll-tell-you-how-you-should-feel kind of thing. Obviously, as a parent - plenty of loving, wonderful times with my kids, but you don't see what you're doing until you do. And it taught me to listen. Even if I don't agree with my newly minted 21-year-old daughter, Haley, about what she's doing with her friends and this and that, I need to stop and just sit down and listen to it from her perspective because she's the one who's living it, not me. Same with my daughter, Allie - I think listening, listening, listening, listening. And don't judge it from your perspective. Judge it from theirs.

SUMMERS: Director Erik Ewers and Dr. Sarah Vinson from the two-part documentary, "Hiding In Plain Sight." It's on Amazon Prime, as well as streaming on pbs.org for the next few weeks. Thanks to you both.

VINSON: Thank you.

EWERS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Megan Lim