A month ago, filmmaker Erik Ewers was enjoying a quiet evening at home in New Hampshire, watching a movie with his wife, when his boss called. He apologized for interrupting, and told Ewers to stop what he was doing and immediately send him his best edited version of the film he was completing about young people and mental health.
Ewers easily accepted the apology, because his boss, legendary documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, needed a version to show First Lady Jill Biden, who was interested in showing the film at the White House.
The first lady was impressed with the film, which was directed and filmed by Erik Ewers and his brother Christopher Ewers. Now Burns, the Ewers brothers and their entire film crew will be gathering in the East Room on Wednesday evening for the White House premier of “Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness.”
Erik Ewers said he could not have asked for a better way to launch his team’s effort to help illuminate the growing problem of mental health among adolescents in the United States.
“My first reaction was joy, with a little bit of shock,” Ewers said.
Ewers said Burns, who was the executive producer of the film, originally encouraged him and his brother to work on the project because they had life experiences that would help them relate to the issue.
“Ken just felt that we would be a really good fit on the project, for such a timely and crucial subject,” Ewers said.
Wednesday’s premiere is just the second such event at the Biden White House because of previous COVID restrictions. The first was the premiere of HBO’s film, “The Survivor,” screened in April, as part of Holocaust Remembrance Week.
Hiding in Plain Sight features personal interviews with 23 young people dealing with various forms of mental illness. Embracing their treatment, the young people featured share a common thread of speaking openly and honestly about their struggles.
“It’s a critical time in the story of mental health in our country – let’s stop thinking that this is something that you keep ‘hush-hush’,” Ewers said. “Our film refers to the magnitude of this crisis, and what young people are going through today — from within themselves, from the pandemic, from racial tensions and the divisiveness in our society.”
Ewers, who has worked with Burns as a film editor for 32 years, said he “can’t believe that our little film, which we put all of our heart and soul into, is being appreciated at this level.”
He was touched when he received a personal note from the first lady, saying the film was “utterly breathtaking,” and that she looked forward to “sharing this film with the nation and perhaps the world,” Ewers said.
Following the White House screening, “In Plain Sight” will be shown to lawmakers Thursday at a Capitol Hill screening, arranged by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
After that, the documentary will be shown in two parts on PBS. Part 1, “Out of the Storm,” airs on June 27, followed by the second part, “Resilience,” on June 28. Both parts also will be streaming on PBS for most of July.
Some of the young people in the film are set to attend the White House screening.
“The kids in the film really deserve this,” Ewers said. “Hopefully this will help other young people out there with what they might be going through. I think the Bidens are exceptionally aware of the topic.”
Ewers hopes the documentary will expose the public to issues that most families never discuss.
“You get to hear an 11-year-old tell you what this is like,” he said. “We were referred to these young people by their therapists. But for the most part, we didn’t know much about them until the interviews started. But then they just opened up to us, sharing more than they ever had before. Even some of their parents didn’t really know what they were going through.”
Ewers said almost all of the young people interviewed had contemplated suicide at one point, and about two-thirds of them actually had attempted suicide. Again, this was news to some of the parents involved, which the Ewers brothers hope will inspire more dialogue for parents and for others who watch the film.
“Not only is the illness often hiding in plain sight, but also hiding in plain sight is the solution — which is talking about it,” Ewers said. “Honest dialogue really is the best option. Sometimes you don’t know that your best friend is suffering at home alone.”
He said he views the young people in the film as heroes for being so open, in an effort to help others who might feel the same but who have not yet sought help.
“They are putting their private and dark moments out there for everyone to see,” Ewers said. “Every one of them has said to us, ‘If I could just help one other person, then this is all worth it’.”
According to Centers for Disease Control statistics, more than “1 in 3 high school students had experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2019, a 40 percent increase since 2009.”
In 2019, approximately 1 in 6 youth reported making a suicide plan in the past year, a 44% increase since 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The center found that the number of black students who reported attempting suicide in 2019 rose by almost 50%.
In addition, almost half of lesbian, gay or bisexual students and nearly one-third of students not sure of their sexual identity reported they had seriously considered suicide—far more than heterosexual students, according to CDC statistic.
Ewers said he has been to two previous White House screenings, during the Clinton administration, for work on the Burns films “Baseball” in 1994, and “Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery” in 1997.
He has worked with Burns since graduation from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1991. He said Burns encouraged him and his brother to make this film, partially because of various traumas they dealt with in their personal lives.
Ewers said Burns was the first person to hold his first child, Allie. Burns later noticed that Ewers struggled with separation anxiety and other stress when he had to be away from his wife and children.
“I was having serious anxiety while they were at home and I was at work. I would play out scenarios of what might happen, and those feelings would just agonize me and destroy me,” Ewers said. “Ken could tell all of this, and I had sort of an emotional breakdown at a screening once. He helped get me in right away to see a psychiatrist, who said I had generalized anxiety disorder. Since then, I’ve had my own mental health journey.”
He added: “We knew nothing about mental health growing up, but we did know a little about mental illness.”
The next project for the Ewers brothers is a film about adult mental health.
“We want to ask why is there such a stigma to it, as the vast majority of America, and the world, know little about it, because it’s something that is largely hidden,” he said. “We want to define it, explain how it feels, what it looks like, and where it is.”
He believes that young people, like the 23 in the film, are paving the way for this more honest discussion.
“The openness of young people today is bringing some very positive change,” he said. “I think our future is going to be quite bright.”