"Hiding in Plain Sight": Ken Burns film about teen mental illness on PBS

PBS has been airing the four hour miniseries Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness. The PBS link is this.

The two part (so far) series has two episodes titled The Storm and Resilience. The film is directed by Erik and Christopher Loren Ewers and is (executive) produced by Ken Burns, for Florentine Films. PBS trailer follows:

The film presents a rotation of teenagers, who generally seem very much into their own worlds (as was and still am I) but also unable to process or deal with what others expect of them as they grow up. 'Well Beings' trailer follows:

One of them (maybe more) is trans or non-binary but the film is not excessively focused on just that. There is some extra attention in the second half, suggesting that for some, the problem is simply not being allowed to be who they are. Discussion follows:

The film pretty early notes that the prompting of algorithmic social media seems to harm many kids, and make them, especially teen girls, excessively preoccupied with what their peers think of them.  I had some of that as a teen, but within a smaller universe of peers.  I was concerned about personal standing in a world that even then took on the look of “survival of the fittest” (think about the draft). One woman and probably one man on the unit wanted to turn transgender, not acceptable in 1962,   

But the film also focuses on physical causes of mental illness, with some material about the development of the DSM Manual.  Many of the teens do have to take medications.  Some of them can have severe side effects, including obesity and diabetes (which I had not heard before).  Teens who do need meds (for delusions) lose about fifteen years of life expectancy from the need for treatment.

The film, of course, invokes memories of my own time at NIH Clinical Center, Building 10, Unit 3West, from July 1962 to January 1963.  It seemed to be a good idea at the time.  There was supposed to be a project to examine college students who had not adapted to living away from home – in a time when we needed brains over brawn as the Cold War heated up.  That was somewhat true of some of the men, but not the women, who tended to be less intact.  Generally, people were concerned about my unwillingness to bond with contemporaries whom I saw as “unworthy”.  But I remember the pressure to “let go”, especially of the fantasies, and the expectation that there would be some miraculous passage back to health.  That didn’t happen.  This is covered in Chapter 1 of my first DADT book and Chapter 2 of the third.

I can recall an article in the 1950 World Book Encyclopedia, claiming that half of all the world’s hospital beds were filled with the mentally ill. At the time it seemed like hyperbole.

There is a sequence late in the film about mandatory outdoor wilderness therapy.

Much of the film deals with substance abuse. One girl says that “addiction is not under your control, it is in your genes”. 

The last half-hour of the film deals a lot with a suicide of a 15 year old male student at Portsmouth NH high school (in 2018) after being socially canceled following some teen behavior. 

That leads to a meditation.  One girl says, 'what you do affects the next seven generations'.  Not more than that?  About two centuries.  We have a lot to get through (like climate change).

The final hip-hop song during the closing credits is rather challenging, mentioning suicide in the lyrics. But the music score also contains a familiar theme by Arvo Part.

(Posted: Tuesday, June 28, 2022 at 11 PM EDT b John W. Boushka)