This all started pretty simply: we were touched by a story. In this case it was a story heard round the world: the slaughter at Virginia Tech. Almost immediately the reports began to circulate: the perpetrator had been diagnosed with mental illness, there’d been signs of his violent fantasies, but nobody had put the troubled pieces of his life together in time. Very soon after that we learned that for every young person like him who takes the lives of others, there are exponentially more who take their own lives. Again, there are often signs of mental illness. But the signs go unrecognized, and the pain goes untreated, and with their lives frayed in so many ways, many adolescents, as one doctor aptly put it, “get the short end of the stick” as they go through life. The troubling statistics mentioned throughout Cry for Help tell it all. There’s an enormous chasm between what we (adults) understand about their lives, and what they’re actually going through.
As teenagers are spending most of their daily life in school, this seemed a good place to start looking at efforts to reach them. We know that schools across the country –- often in the wake of tragedy -– are coming to the realization that they can’t just focus on academics anymore. WNET got unprecedented access at two different schools — Hamilton High School (Hamilton, OH) and Clarkstown High School North (New City, NY) -– each one trying a different approach to better understand the mental/emotional condition of their students. I cannot say enough good things about the people who are running both of these schools: they care, and they know they’ve got to care, and despite all the other demands on their time and attention just trying to teach the children, they’re committed to this course of action. We watched both schools during the first year of running their programs; I think you’ll agree that at least on some level both efforts seem to be working.
Along the way we met many smart and concerned clinicians who are treating patients or doing research on this issue, as well as teenagers who’ve been through hell and back dealing with mental illness. We also met the families of some of those who’ve died. Our biggest take-away from this is: one, teenage mental illness — and its consequences — is a much bigger problem than anyone has talked about. And two, there’s a lot that can be done about it if the channels of communication and understanding are opened wider between young people and all of the adults in their lives. We hope to contribute to that with our report.
Cry for Help airs Wednesday, 4/19 at 9pm.