Teen filmmakers bring youth mental health to the screen in Open Mind Film Festival

‘This is a way to get teenagers to be involved and start telling their stories,’ says festival founder Mia Silverman

Photo: Nine short films, out of 120 submissions, were selected for the second annual Open Mind Film Festival.

Bullying. Loneliness. Gender identity. Addiction. Alienation.

These are some of the themes high school filmmakers are addressing in the second annual Open Mind Film Festival. Created by The Friends of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, the virtual program will be held April 28.

“One of our goals is to reduce the stigma of mental illness, and one way to do that is by starting younger,” says Open Mind Film Festival founder Mia Silverman. “If we can have younger kids and high school kids start talking about mental health and being more open, they may not have so much shame. This film festival is a way to get teenagers to be involved and start telling their stories.”

Nearly 120 short films were submitted by high school students from across the country. Films in all genres, up to five minutes long, were accepted. Nine selections will be screened during the virtual event, and three filmmakers will receive cash awards.

Spotlight on youth mental health

While the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on everyone’s mental health, young people were already suffering at alarming levels before the virus changed how we live, work and connect.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a public advisory on Dec. 7, 2021, calling for an “all-of-society effort” to address the youth mental health crisis.

The isolation and lifestyle changes brought on by the pandemic worsened an already alarming situation. High school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness already had jumped by 40% from 2009 to 2019, Dr. Murthy wrote in his 53-page report. Suicide rates among people ages 10 to 24 increased by 57% between 2007 and 2018. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among people age 15 to 24 in the U.S.

The film "Sixth Grade" explores bullying and suicidal ideation.

One of the films screening at the festival, “Sixth Grade,” addresses bullying and suicidal ideation.

“Many of the films seem more personal this year,” says festival co-chair Mary Snyder. “Some of them last year were just generally what kids were observing about what quarantining was like. They were willing to share real feelings this year.”

"Desired Reality" addresses the addictive nature of video games.

One film is about a transgender girl’s experience. Two others deal with abuse at the hands of a romantic partner. Another is about the addictive nature of video games.

“What’s important is that these young people are telling their stories,” Silverman says. “Hopefully, their parents and other young people will start to feel there’s a community of people who are like them — people who are willing to go public and tell their stories — and hopefully that makes them feel less alone.”

The shift to virtual programming that The Friends of the Semel Institute embraced during the pandemic has allowed this film festival to attract young artists from all over the country and to draw a national audience, Silverman says.

“It’s been fun to see where everyone is coming from,” she says. “We’re excited to bring more people in to learn about The Friends of the Semel and to learn about mental health and teenage issues.”

Dr. Elizabeth Laugeson (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

Talking about teen well-being

The festival will be hosted by 20-year-old singer-songwriter Grace Gaustad, who speaks openly about her struggles with anxiety in her music and media appearances. Gaustad created a website about mental health for teens, blkbxproject.org, with the mission of helping young people feel less alone.

Gaustad will be in conversation with Elizabeth Laugeson, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and an associate clinical professor in the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the Semel Institute. Dr. Laugeson is the founder and director of the UCLA PEERS Clinic, the Program of Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills, which provides social-skills treatment for young people with autism spectrum disorder, anxiety, depression and other conditions.

The film festival is geared toward destigmatizing mental illness and normalizing conversations about mental health, Silverman says, and inspiring more teens to express themselves and share their experiences: “We think that when young people see this, they’ll find it moving and hopefully decide to make their own films.”

Learn more and register to attend the free Open Mind Film Festival.