By Jayne O’Donnell, Samantha Rosengard and Amora Campbell
Four years ago, Lexi Shepard of Kokomo was struggling with depression, her identity as a lesbian and certainty that coming out would mean she’d “lose everything.” She tried to take her life on April 24, 2017.
The news spread quickly on social media throughout her community.
“Having my experience leaked was awful at the time but it helped me understand the stigma behind mental health and how encompassing it is in our culture,” Shepard said in a May interview. “It was like this had never happened before and six months prior, a (high school) senior passed away and it was a suicide.”
Shepard joined fellow Kokomo resident, motivational speaker Nathan Harmon, in Connecting the Dots, a documentary about global teen mental health directed by Toronto-based filmmaker Noemi Weis. The film was shot before COVID-19’s social isolation threatened the mental health of even the most well-adjusted adults, which makes some of the intense footage even more alarming.
“People need to hear the truth that most kids our age are not fine,” said a teen girl in an Indiana classroom in the film.
Connecting the Dots’ virtual global launch in November reached people in 50 countries and was part of a partnership that included the United Nations’ child welfare organization, UNICEF.
While Weis works to make a deal with a broadcast distribution partner, she has turned the film’s release into an “impact campaign” about young people’s precarious mental health through screenings she hopes reach policymakers, educators and community leaders. UNICEF also partnered with the Canadian Telus Fund to produce a facilitator's guide released in May to help steer conversations at screenings.
Weis is well positioned to make a difference after her 2015 documentary, Milk, which is still airing on streaming platforms, was screened in 500 countries, led Weis to a meeting with Pope Francis and facilitated new breastfeeding programs in Canada and several African countries.
While the pandemic made it more challenging to promote and distribute the film, it also magnified the problem the film is highlighting.
“When I got involved in the film in 2017, I was compelled by the statistics and the crisis of mental health in young people,” said Weis. “Now, anxiety and depression in young people has risen so much that the film is far more timely and relevant.”
From Kenya to Australia to Lithuania, many of the teens’ stories are similar: There are students who have to worry about gun violence in their neighborhoods, about where their next meal is going to come from, about being attacked because of who they are. These worries are piled on top of their internal questions about whether or not they deserve to be alive.
“Most people don’t talk about what young people are going through,” said Laura, a teen in Eldoret, Kenya.
It is perhaps this very opening of the door to wider conversation that is the film’s greatest strength. While no film could fully explore all aspects of youth mental health, Weis clearly lays out all the angles that need to be explored.
Shepard’s story captures the gravity of the struggles faced by many of the dozens of teens who shared their thoughts and experiences in the film through interviews and self-made video diaries. It also underscores the additional challenges faced by LGBTQ+ youth, particularly in politically conservative states such as Indiana and in religiously conservative families in communities of color.
Four years after the events highlighted in the film, Shepard is preparing to start college in the fall at Ball State University, emerging from the pandemic with her family and well being intact, thanks to the mental health treatment she got during her darker days and the self-care tools she acquired.
She combines terms from oncology and addiction treatment to describe where she is today. Shepard says she is “in remission” from depression but says if “I feel myself start falling off the wagon,” she does activities she enjoys that relax her, such as painting or taking a walk.
Suicide survivor, documentary participant talks about her journey to wellness
“Honestly, the person I was three to four years ago, I wouldn’t recognize her,” said Shepard. “The amount of progress is really insane.”
Harmon, 35, spent more than three years in prison after wrecking a car while driving drunk and killing his 28-year-old passenger in 2009. He went on to build a successful public speaking business to schools and now church groups, often in large tent meetings including one in May in Plainfield.
Connecting the Dots opens with him posing a chilling question to an Indiana high school auditorium full of students.
“How many of you in here, this school year… have you already heard a classmate talking about and entertaining the idea that maybe I should just take my life,” Harmon asked.
Nearly every student raises a hand.
Activism acts as elixir for mental health
Shepard became a mental health advocate of sorts after Harmon facilitated a similar discussion at her school in 2016 and 2017. When he told students Weis needed people to submit their stories for her documentary, Shepard quickly agreed. When she was contacted to be part of a shoot with other young people she didn’t know, it was both frightening and exhilarating, she said.
She now counts her participation in the film among her proudest achievements, but worries how much worse teen mental health has gotten, especially among LGBTQ+ youth, since the pandemic.
LGBTQ+ youth and youth of color often have to deal with discrimination and stigma on top of their mental health problems, an experience shared by several young people in the film.
“I have several friends who are out and their families responded very well, but there are others who are in the closet and don’t know what to do,” she said recently. “I’m really scared for them.”
Harmon doesn’t directly address the challenges LGBTQ+ youth face in his presentations, he says, but instead shines a light on the addiction and mental health problems that plague the communities’ youth.
When he met Shepard, Harmon remembers her struggling with her identity.
“She felt this longing to try and figure out her place,” said Harmon. “It's hard for the LGBTQ+ community because so many people feel the burden of wanting to feel like they belong”.
He may not be an expert on the LGBTQ+ experience, but Harmon knows well how Shepard likely felt in 2014 when she attempted suicide. Suicide, he said, is often not truly a desire to end one’s life but rather an inability to cope. He came close to dying by suicide when he was 18, but it was averted when he began to think about his mother.
In the film, a Black Muslim teen told Harmon she felt she was invisible and that no one in her community talked about mental health: “I just thought that those problems were for everybody except people like me,” she said.
The film’s focus on the teens’ voices - there are no professional experts or adults - allows for greater weight to be given to what they have to say. By erasing the taboo nature surrounding mental health and demonstrating the problem is more common than people might think, it will hopefully become easier for people to talk about it, Weis said.
“The beauty of it is there is a healing process throughout the film,” said Weis, facilitated by the process of the teens sharing their stories.
There’s also been impressive emotional growth in participants as well.
Megan Shinnick, 23, grew up in public housing in affluent Wellesley, Massachusetts and, along with Harmon, is most prominent in the film.
Shinnick’s story is by far the most detailed, graphic and vulnerable in the film, with her recording one of her own panic attacks on her phone, reading her old diary out loud and discussing suicidal thoughts. She knows she’ll likely never be completely cured, but is
While she tried medication for years, she ultimately talked with her doctor about going off it because it was not making a difference. Instead, she works on establishing healthy routines, eating healthy food she cooks herself, exercising, and organizing a daily schedule to keep her on track.
The film’s few mentions of pharmaceutical treatment for mental health issues come from a handful of students talking in their video diaries, with all but one sharing negative experiences.
Weis says that wasn’t intentional and believes people - young and old - should use what works for them personally without fear of stigma.
For her part, Shepard takes the antidepressant Lexapro along with utilizing the self care skills she’s learned over the years. She also finds helping others makes her feel far better personally. She’s proud of her work highlighting mental health in the documentary and plans to get more active in the LGBTQ+ advocacy community to help young people in it who are struggling. As Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close and Pride Month - typically celebrated in June - arrives, Shepard said she’s especially hopeful for post-pandemic Pride events this year.
“I think (Pride month) is a great way to commemorate all we’re fought for,” said Shepard. “I can’t wait to go to a true Pride event.”
Her most important piece of advice for young LGBTQ+ community members is personal: “Come to terms with who you are before you ask anyone to accept you.”
Rosengard, who received a Masters of Fine Arts degree from Boston University in May, is a former intern with the Urban Health Media Project. Campbell, a longtime UHMP high school intern, is attending Ohio State University on a full scholarship in the fall. O’Donnell is UHMP’s founder and USA TODAY’s former health policy reporter.
This story was published in the Indy Star.