Documentary Illustrates Issues of Children’s Mental Health in Texas
September 1, 2004
The struggles facing Texas children with mental illnesses are the focus of a new documentary entitled Are the Kids Alright? broadcast on public television stations across the state on June 24 and is available free from the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.
Produced by award-winning documentarians Karen Bernstein and Ellen Spiro of Austin, the hour-long film provides an arresting glimpse into children's mental health services in Texas.
This is the first statewide television documentary in Texas to address issues surrounding children's mental health care, and is the product of nearly two years of research and interviews to understand the multifaceted issues and tough decisions confronting the state's mental health system.
The film unfolds through the stories of children, therapists, parents, and judges who confront the issues of children with mental illnesses on a daily basis. The documentary not only portrays the steep obstacles and painful choices confronting families who have a loved one suffering from mental illness, but the daily struggles of mental health advocates, service providers, and policymakers in helping these youths get treatment.
In an extraordinary level of collaboration and the efforts of HoustonPBS' director of programming, Ken Lawrence, twelve of the state's thirteen PBS stations carried the documentary on June 24. Several of the stations including KLRU in Austin, KACV in Amarillo, KMBH in Harlingen, KUHT in Houston, KNCT in Killeen, KWBU in Waco, and KOCV in Odessa produced their own special programs on the mental health needs of children in their communities in conjunction with the documentary that included local mental health professionals, families, and children's advocates.
The tremendous level of participation by Texas PBS stations had a lot to do with the impact the documentary has produced, according to Jeffery R. Patterson, communications director of the Hogg Foundation and an advisor to the film.
"Since its airing in June, Are the Kids Alright? has received a remarkably powerful and enthusiastic response from community leaders, mental health professionals, and academics from across Texas and the nation," Patterson said. "I have had policymakers and advocates alike say that they literally cried at some of the stories they had seen portrayed."
"The response to this film is truly a testament to the compassion and skill of Karen and Ellen as filmmakers and journalists. Karen has a great ability to engender trust and openness in the folks who opened their lives to illustrate the conditions families face when dealing with a child who has a behavioral disorder," Patterson said.
The documentary does more than trace a lack of public and private funding as a source of the problem. By following the stories of families affected, the filmmakers illustrate the complexities of mental illnesses and the pervasiveness of how many children are suffering from them. State officials estimate that some 420,000 Texas youths under the age of 18 suffer from a severe emotional disturbance that impairs their ability to function, but only a fraction of these children are appropriately diagnosed or treated each year.
"In the course of making this documentary, we found that children with severe emotional disorders are a hidden segment of the population in Texas," said Bernstein.
"Although we connected with families from different backgrounds and regions in the state, their stories were surprisingly similar. All of them faced frustrations, misunderstandings, and a lack of resources in trying to get help for their children."
"Equally compelling are the stories told by the judges, clinicians, counselors, advocates, and policymakers who are doing their best in the face of a lack of public awareness and support for these fragile children and their families," Bernstein said.
The documentary includes stories such as Jeremy, a troubled teen from Austin whose years of misdiagnosis and behavioral problems led him into the Travis County juvenile justice system. Unable to afford the $100-a-day expense for care, Jeremy's father, Tony, faced having to go to court to give up custody of his son to the state so he could receive treatment.
Just as poignant is the story of Cesar, a seven-year-old child living along the Texas-Mexico border in McAllen, who cries as he tells his therapist, Dr. Mary Elizabeth De Ferreire, of voices that tell him to stab himself or his siblings. Because of a lack of psychiatric pediatrics facilities along the border, his mother's only recourse is the emergency room should her son suffer another episode.
Equally compelling is Antonia, a Houston teen whose bouts of depression and lack of resources resulted in suicide attempts and domestic problems for the grandparents who are raising her.
The documentary was produced through an expansive and innovative partnership among a number of funders and organizations, including the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health and the Department of Radio, Television and Film at The University of Texas at Austin, HoustonPBS, the Houston Endowment and the Austin Film Society.
In addition, The Meadows Foundation of Dallas has provided support for the development of a comprehensive public information campaign conducted through the Hogg Foundation to raise public awareness of children's mental health issues in Texas, improve understanding about the appropriate diagnosis and treatment of emotional disorders, and describe the gaps within the fractured public mental health system in the state. The outreach effort includes informational brochures, an extensive web site, and a media information campaign, which all seek to focus public attention on the issue of severe emotional disturbances in children.
"Our hope is to use this documentary as a tool to focus public attention on a problem that is too often neglected or forgotten," said Patterson. "We are encouraging both individuals and organizations–schools, clinics, mental health organizations–to share this documentary and information with their clients, neighbors and families."
About the Filmmakers
In 1999, filmmakers Karen Bernstein and Ellen Spiro formed Mobilus Media in Austin to initiate groundbreaking documentary projects. Bernstein has worked in television documentaries for twenty years. Her work has been screened at hundreds of international film festivals, including Sundance and Berlin. She won a national Emmy award as producer of Ella Fitzgerald: Something To Live For (1999) while working as Series Producer for American Masters on PBS. She won a Grammy award in the category of Best Long Form Music Video as producer of Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart (1998).
Spiro has directed and produced an extensive body of inventive documentaries, which have won numerous awards and have been shown in museums, including the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum Biennial, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In 2004 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. She has also received two Rockefeller fellowships, as well as a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Jerome Foundation fellowship, New York State Council on the Arts fellowship, New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, and others. Spiro is an associate professor in the Radio-TV-Film Department at The University of Texas at Austin.