A month ago, filmmaker Erik Ewers was spending a quiet evening at his home in New Hampshire, watching a movie with his wife, when his boss called. He apologized for interrupting him and told Ewers to stop what he was doing and immediately send him his best edited version of the film he was finishing on young people and mental health.
Ewers readily accepted the apology because his boss, legendary documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, needed a version to show First Lady Jill Biden, who wanted to show 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 gather in the East Room on Wednesday night for the White House premiere of “Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness.”
Erik Ewers said he couldn’t have asked for a better way to kick off his team’s efforts to help shed light on the growing problem of adolescent mental health in the United States.
“My first reaction was joy, with a bit of shock,” Ewers said.
Ewers said Burns, who served as the film’s executive producer, initially encouraged him and his brother to work on the project because they had life experiences that would help them understand the issue.
“Ken just felt we would be a great fit for the project, for such a timely and crucial topic,” Ewers said.
Wednesday’s premiere is only the second such event at Biden’s White House due to previous COVID restrictions. The first was the premiere of HBO’s film, “The Survivor,” which screened in April as part of Holocaust Remembrance Week.
Hiding in Plain Sight features personal interviews with 23 young people struggling 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.
“This is a critical moment in the history of mental health in our country – let’s stop thinking it’s something you keep ‘silent’,” Ewers said. “Our film references the magnitude of this crisis and what young people are going through today – from within themselves, from the pandemic, from racial tensions and divisions in our society.”
Ewers, who worked with Burns as an editor for 32 years, said he “can’t believe our little movie, which we put our heart and soul into, is being enjoyed on this level.”
He was touched when he received a personal note from the first lady, saying the film was “absolutely stunning” and that she was looking forward to “sharing this film with the nation and perhaps the world,” said Ewers.
Following the White House screening, “In Plain Sight” will be shown to lawmakers Thursday at a Capitol Hill screening hosted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
After that, the documentary will air in two parts on PBS. Part 1, “Out of the Storm,” will air on June 27, followed by Part 2, “Resilience,” on June 28. Both parts will also air on PBS for most of July.
Some of the youngsters in the film are expected to attend the White House screening.
“The kids in the movie really deserve it,” Ewers said. “I hope it helps other young people out there with what they might be going through. I think the Bidens are exceptionally aware of the subject.
Ewers hopes the documentary will expose audiences to issues that most families never discuss.
“You hear an 11-year-old tell you how it is,” 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 nearly all of the young people surveyed had considered suicide at some point, and about two-thirds of them had actually attempted suicide. Again, this was news for some of the parents involved, which the Ewers brothers hope will inspire more dialogue for parents and for others watching the film.
“Not only does the disease often hide in plain sight, but the solution is also to hide in plain sight, which is to say talk about it,” Ewers said. “Honest dialogue is really the best option. Sometimes you don’t know your best friend is suffering alone at home.
He said he considers the young people in the film heroes for being so open, in an effort to help others who might feel the same way but haven’t yet reached out for help.
“They make their private, dark moments available to everyone,” Ewers said. “Each of them said to us, ‘If I could just help one other person, then it’s all worth it’.”
According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, more than “1 in 3 high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2019, a 40% increase since 2009.”
In 2019, about 1 in 6 young people said they had made 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 said they had attempted suicide in 2019 increased by almost 50%.
Additionally, nearly half of lesbian, gay, or bisexual students and nearly a third of students unsure of their gender identity said they had seriously considered suicide, far more than straight students, according to CDC statistics.
Ewers said he had attended two previous White House screenings during the Clinton administration to work on the Burns films “Baseball” in 1994 and “Lewis and Clark: The Body’s Journey of Discovery” in 1997.
He has worked with Burns since graduating from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1991. He said Burns encouraged him and his brother to make this film, in part because of various traumas they had suffered in their personal lives.
Ewers said Burns was the first person to hold his first child, Allie. Burns later noticed that Ewers suffered from separation anxiety and other stresses when he had to be away from his wife and children.
“I had serious anxiety while they were home and I was at work. I would play scenarios of what might happen, and those feelings would torture me and destroy me,” Ewers said. “Ken could tell all this, and I had a kind of emotional breakdown at a screening once. He helped me get to a psychiatrist right away, who told me I had generalized anxiety disorder. Since then, I have had my own mental health journey.
He added: “We didn’t know anything about mental health growing up, but we did know a little about mental illness.”
The Ewers brothers’ next project is a film about adult mental health.
“We want to ask why is there such a stigma, when the vast majority of America and the world know little about it, because it is something that is largely hidden,” he said. he declares. “We want to define it, explain how it feels, what it looks like and where it is.”
He thinks young people, like the 23 in the film, are leading the way for this more honest discussion.
“Today’s youth opening brings very positive changes,” he said. “I think our future will be pretty bright.”