A documentary aimed at changing the perception of mental illnesses in San Luis Obispo County was released Feb. 4 at the Supervisor’s Chambers at the County Government Center.
Cal Poly graduate and documentary director Alec Ramsey said the people he knew suffering from mental illnesses influenced his project.
“While I was at Cal Poly, 90 percent of the subjects I explored in my art, were dealing with mental illness,” he said. “It is definitely something that spoke to me personally.”
The documentary is part of a campaign funded by San Luis Obispo County Behavioral Health Services and was completed by Transitions Mental Health Association and 20/20 Creative Group. It explores three mental illnesses: depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
This partnership was formed to show that mental illness is not an unsolvable problem, Hannah Brown, a representative from Transition Mental Health Association, said. Even if people are not directly affected by mental illness, they need to be more informed, she added.
“People tend to fear the unknown. The less someone knows about mental illness, the more they fear it,” Brown said. “We are trying to change that.”
Though many seem to fear mental illness, it is more common than people might think. A report on mental health from the surgeon general estimated 20 percent of the U.S. population is affected by a mental disorder each year.
People affected by mental illness tend to keep their condition to themselves. Frank Warren, program supervisor at the San Luis Obispo County Behavioral Health Services, said that the documentary is a way to tell people that it is alright to talk about not feeling OK. Talking about mental illness is one way to get people suffering out of isolation.
“Isolation was a big theme,” Ramsey said. “When I was doing sketches and brainstorming I got the vision of this dark.”
Cal Poly graduate and photography director Barry Goyette had the challenge of shooting the documentary according to Ramsey’s vision. While concentrating on specifics like microphones and composition, Goyette said he was stuck while shooting the documentary.
“One of the things that was really striking to me was how normal everyone was,” Goyette said. “While we may have a picture of mental illness being very extreme, quite often it is someone that you know.”
Whether they are acquaintances or close friends, the people telling their stories had a powerful effect on audience members.
While watching the interviews with the subjects for the documentary, Ramsey couldn’t contain his emotions.
“Everyone in the room was at one point choked up. I was honored to know what kind of impact I would have with the documentary,” he said.
The nine documentary subjects are locals found through personal recommendations and a Craigslist ad.
Curtis Poppenberg suffers from depression; he was asked to participate by a friend involved in the project. He has shared his illness with some of the people close to him, but being a part of the project meant sharing with the public.
“I get up in the morning and I take the first five minutes of everyday and I ask, ‘God, what do you want me to do?'” Poppenberg said.
Being involved in SLO the Stigma was one of the opportunities he has taken because he asked this question, he said.
The participants knew that being a part of this project would mean sharing their illnesses with a large audience. Amanda Nelson, who suffers from bipolar disorder, said when she lived in a big city it was easy to disappear into the crowds, but it is different in San Luis Obispo county.
“I know more people when I walk down the street,” Nelson said. “This community is great; as long as we can get rid of the stigma, it can be even better.”
Ramsey said the sharing of the stories will help society understand mental illnesses.
“We want this to be something that is talked about normally without fear of labeling,” he said. “As soon as we can reduce that fear and make it a dialogue, then more people will come forward.”