Pleasant Valley students highlight mental health stigma in statewide video contest
Much of what students learn in Michael Peck’s ROP video production class at Pleasant Valley High School is technically oriented. “We shoot, we edit,” Peck said during a recent visit to his classroom.
But as of this year, he’s built participation in a statewide student video contest, Directing Change, into his curriculum. The competition is part of broader efforts to prevent suicide and reduce stigma and discrimination related to mental illness. As such, Peck knew his students would have to fully grasp the prevalence of mental illness to be successful.
“I told them that unless they really understand what this message is about, it’s just going to be a cool-looking video,” he said. “It’s not really going to be the message these people at Directing Change are looking for.”
So Peck, who also teaches a health class at PV, made sure his students were familiar with mental health issues before they began producing their 60-second public service announcements. He invited a guest speaker from Butte County Behavioral Health, assigned research on the topic and shared personal anecdotes about people he’s known who have struggled with mental disorders.
Seniors Lana Maderos and Mary Beem said the background work helped them form the concept for their PSA, titled “Walk the Mile.” Filmed along the Steve G. Harrison Memorial Bike Path near the Doe Mill neighborhood, the video begins with a young woman—Maderos’ sister—walking along the path as passersby literally label her, sticking notes on her shirt that read “weird,” “psycho,” “freak” and “crazy.”
“The world thinks they know what I am. But the reality is I’m so much more than that,” Maderos narrates. As friends and family members emerge to remove the labels and walk alongside the girl, Maderos continues: “I am a sister. I am a daughter. I am a best friend. I am a granddaughter. … Stand up for a friend, stand up for yourself, stand up against stigma of mental illness.”
Though his students turned in plenty of worthy videos, Peck said, “Walk the Mile” stood out immediately. “The first time I saw it, it just struck me—this is unique, it’s powerful, it’s very positive, it can give people hope,” he said. “It shows that everyone really is surrounded by a network of people and that you’re not defined by a mental illness.”
The Directing Change judges must have agreed. “Walk the Mile” took first place in the regional competition, advancing to the state level. Maderos and Beem, along with Peck and six students hired as the official video crew for the evening, attended the red carpet awards ceremony at the Crest Theatre in Sacramento on May 13.
Their competitors were mostly students from schools in Southern California, where access to higher technology is the norm, Peck said. Even against such stiff competition, “Walk the Mile” took second place in the Ending the Silence category.
Maderos and Beem are good friends outside of class. Both plan on studying nursing; this fall, Maderos will attend Butte College, while Beem will attend Chico State.
The pair described themselves as underdogs in their classroom, admitting they received help from their peers on the sound and video production, but maintaining their video was successful because of its positive tone.
“It’s not all these negative facts; it’s, ‘There is a light at the end of the tunnel,’” Beem said. “We wanted to keep it positive.”
“A lot of people struggling with mental illness feel like they’re alone,” Maderos added, “so we wanted to portray that you’re not alone. You have people there for you even if you don’t realize it.”
National Institute for Mental Health statistics show that roughly 1 in 5 youth ages 13 to 18 experience some form of mental health challenges in a given year, and the implications are troubling—45 percent of students with an emotional disorder drop out of high school, according to the U.S. Department of Education, while only 32 percent of students with a serious mental illness pursue higher education.
“It’s alarming to me as an adult, a father and a teacher to see the number of kids in our society who are dealing with unhappiness and internal struggles,” Peck said.
That’s why he decided to incorporate the Directing Change contest into his classroom. National statistics suggest that mental issues are widespread, and Peck has observed them in his students. “The more I learn about mental illness and depression, the more I see how many people are affected by it.”
Maderos and Beem acknowledged that mental health stigma is prevalent among their peers. “Some kids don’t want to understand what people are going through with a mental illness,” Beem said, “or anyone who is a little different.”
Peck asserted that any school, from preschool to university, will have similar social issues. He’s observed an unwillingness to reach out to fellow students who “appear to be different or appear to be struggling.”
In Peck’s health class, he devotes a unit to mental health in which he reminds his students: “It’s very easy to just walk right by somebody, but it’s also easy to take a second to say, ‘Hello.’ That kind of stuff can be very important for people who are struggling. It can change how they feel.”