Ken Burns and the Ewers Brothers Shine a Light on Youth Mental Illness in New Documentary


Youth mental illness has reached crisis levels in America. The percentage of adolescents who have experienced at least one major depressive episode increased by 60 percent from 2007 to 2019. Rates of anxiety, self-harm and suicide attempts were skyrocketing even before the Covid-19 pandemic, and since then things have only got worse.

Filmmaker Ken Burns has produced a powerful new two-part documentary film on this subject. Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness airs June 27-28 at 9:00 p.m. ET on PBS and will be available to stream on the PBS app. The film was directed and edited by Burns’ longtime colleagues Erik Ewers and Christopher Ewers. It shares the voices of 21 young people from various parts of America who live with mental health issues, tackling issues of stigma, discrimination, awareness and silence.

Hiding in plain sight is part of a larger public media mental health initiative called Welfare. The documentary was screened Wednesday at the White House by First Lady Jill Biden.

“We hope this film will save lives,” Burns says. Stories shared include a 14-year-old boy who struggles with intrusive thoughts and withdraws into his own world, a 15-year-old struggling with addiction, a Native American girl feeling so isolated she contemplates suicide and a transgender teenager suffering from sadness who turns to substance use.

The Ewers brothers have this advice for young people struggling with mental health issues in 2022:

· Talk about that. Talk about that. Talk about that. Talking helps. Talking heals.

· Remember: You’re not alone! We all experience mental health issues in life, all of us. It is part of life and the experience of life.

· Think of mental health as a sliding scale. Some people can get up, brush their teeth, and move on. Others need a helping hand to pick them up. Others need more help moving forward.

· Find your person. In our film, 17-year-old Collin says, “It’s extremely important to find the person who can help you through times like this… They can help you through these difficulties. You are not alone.

· Express yourself. Billie, a 17-year-old transgender girl in our film says, “Don’t be afraid to express yourself and be who you are. Because honestly there aren’t as many people watching as you think… It’s scary to put yourself out there because you expose yourself to others judging you and it opens you up to criticism, but it also opens you up to love. ”

Finally, know this: It’s okay not to be well!

Erik Ewers is the director and editor of Hiding in plain sight. He worked with filmmaker Ken Burns for over 30 years and won a personal Emmy Award. Chris Ewers is the film’s director and cinematographer. He and Erik are co-owners and co-directors of Ewers Brothers Productions, producing feature documentaries in partnership with Ken Burns and Florentine Films.

It was the Ken Burns documentary Civil war, which Erik Ewers saw in 1990 while still at university, which inspired him to become a filmmaker. “I was moved to tears watching the film, which combined old photographs with music and sound effects. It was so real to me and moving. I was overwhelmed,” he recounts. “ At that time, I said to myself that I wanted to do this.” Ewers was surprised to find that Burns lived next door to his aunt and uncle in Walpole, NH. They met, Ewers started an internship almost immediately, and they’ve been working together ever since.

Chris Ewers says he’s wanted to be behind the camera since he was in high school. He studied cinematography at university when digital cinema had not yet been invented. Now it thrives on the collaborative nature of filmmaking.

When it comes to documentary cinema, the Ewers brothers take it very seriously. “We are responsible for someone’s legacy,” says Erik Ewers. “We are responsible for how we portray that person in all aspects of their life and experiences, trials and tribulations, and accomplishments. We must manage it with delicacy and respect.

The biggest challenge the filmmakers had to face Hiding in plain sight established a climate of trust, not only with the interviewees, but also with their families. “They confessed to the world some of their deepest and darkest moments of their lives as they struggled with trauma and mental illness,” says Erik Ewers. “I learned immediately that by sharing my own very real past trauma and mental health issues (I was medicated for anxiety and OCD for 22 years) we were able to find a relationship with one the other. The process of sharing our stories can be extremely cathartic.

Although the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted their directing efforts for several months, the Ewers brothers were still able to complete a high-quality film. “We used the downtime to focus our attention on the film’s script and story structure, which coincidentally allowed us to have laser focus when we were able to resume production,” explains Chris Ewers. “Overall, I like to think the pandemic has brought us closer together and proven to the film industry how resilient we are.”

For people looking to focus on their life purpose, Erik Ewers has this advice. “Keep an eye and an ear open to the things in life that really intrigue you or inspire you and follow that. You can make a career out of what you love. I know that because I did it. Chris Ewers said “We all know the saying ‘love what you do.’ !


Comments are closed.