A new documentary that gives voice to and puts a face on the child and teen mental health crisis goes live online Thursday at 7:30 CT when it airs on Milwaukee’s PBS station.
“You’re Not Alone,” which follows four young people from Wisconsin as they navigate mental health challenges, is a collaboration between USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin and Milwaukee PBS. The young people are fully identified and interviewed in the documentary.
The young people featured have experienced problems including suicidal thinking, post-traumatic stress disorder, bullying and childhood sexual abuse. They first told their stories at one of the more than 30 town halls and community events the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has held on the topic of youth mental health as part of its Kid in Crisis series.
Jim Fitzhenry, vice president of news for USA TODAY Network/Central Wisconsin, says the journalists “went through the pros and cons of doing this and sharing this” with the young people identified.
“People have been really brave and it’s been cathartic for them to do it,” says Fitzhenry. “It’s extremely powerful and it’s healing for people.”
USA TODAY is also running a story on page 1 of its Monday print edition that will closely examine the mental health treatment shortage for young people, such as those in the new documentary. May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
There are many causes behind the sharp increase in suicides, attempts and ideation. Academic, social and economic pressures weigh on students. Social media can compound anxiety and facilitate bullying. Mental health care can be hard to find — particularly for people in rural areas or people with public health insurance.
One in five children ages 13-18 have or will have a mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. But on average, it takes eight to 10 years after the onset of mental illness for a person to receive treatment.
One issue is the lack of providers. The U.S. has only enough psychiatrists to meet 26% of the need, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And the existing providers lack diversity and expertise to help young people from a variety of backgrounds.
The four young people featured in the new documentary illustrate the power of putting a name and face on a problem that is often stigmatized and kept secret.
“Our experience has overwhelmingly been positive where…people hear these stories and other kids are touched and share their stories and then can help other people,” says Fitzhenry. “I think that makes the journalism more powerful because it’s not just someone anonymous – it’s a real person with real experiences and the common humanity of it connects with people.”
Here are the young people featured:
• Alex Hart-Upendo wrote a goodbye note at age 7 after experiencing severe bullying, Now 12, he is running his own business, selling and donating homemade bowties, and looking forward to the years ahead.
“Where I would see myself in 10 years, is… my company being a major franchise, and seeing my product in stores worldwide, me sharing my story with other people and bringing light to others, and helping them out of the darkness,” Hart-Upendo said.
•TJ Esser told his family he was transgender when he was 13. He had a better reaction than many of his peers; his family members learned to be his best allies. Now 16, he wants others to understand the importance of supporting people as any gender they are. He wants to see an end to the higher rates of mental health challenges and suicidal thoughts his transgender peers experience.
“I think a lot of trans people, trans students especially, suffer from so much mental health because it’s not always an open place in schools to be who you are,” Esser said.
•Barrett Poetker first thought about suicide in middle school, where she was being bullied and excluded. Now 19, she’s leading workshops for her fellow college students about mental wellness and studying to be a pediatric physician’s assistant.
“I really hope that I can just work with kids that have the mental health struggles that I had because I can relate to them very well and I hope that I can just help them understand that they’re not alone,” Poetker said.
•Reyna Saldana had been sexually assaulted and adopted into a new family by age 4. At age 7, she was left at a mental health facility, and the family never took her back. She went through foster homes, group homes and prison. Now 20, she is sharing her message across the state.
“I hope that we take different approaches towards kids that struggle with mental illness and depression, and take a better look at what they’re going through,” Saldana said. “Being put away didn’t make me better. It just kind of hid me from the outside.”
If you are in emotional crisis or supporting someone in crisis, consider reaching out to a helpline:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255
National Crisis Text Line: Text “Hopeline” to 741-741
Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten and Haley BeMiller, Karl Ebert and Andrew Mollica of USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin contributed to this report.
If you or your children are struggling with issues mentioned in this story and you would like to connect with others online, join USA TODAY’s “I Survived It” Facebook support group.
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