May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Why is there a Mental Health Awareness Month? To draw attention to mental health and mental illness, which is all too often an invisible, stigmatized illness. It needs to be seen and understood. We need to share stories to foster empathy so we realize we are not alone in our struggles and that there is hope in recovery.
Why doesn’t Mental Filmness take place in the month of May? That’s a good question. The weather is warmer, there’s a whole month to work with, there’s less competition with horror movie stuff. That may be a possibility for expansion in the future. The short and simple answer for why Mental Filmness always takes place around October 10th, World Mental Health Day, is timing. The festival was founded in January and that gave us plenty of time to screen and curate films before October rolled around. It has sort of been rooted in that time loop ever since. Plus, October 10th is the same every year and easy to remember: just look for us then.
However, May is a whole month of celebrating just what our mission does. I seem to get this question every year: Why Mental Filmness?
Well, there’s a personal answer, and a more global answer, to that. To some of the filmmakers who have asked me, I’ve told them, because I’m just like you. I want to share a story with the world and make it feel less alone. My story is that I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in mid-2015 and though it helped me make sense of the senseless things that were happening to me, it was also a tough road to recovery, and I know my life will never be the same because I’ll be living with it. Of course, that is only one part of my story, and it doesn’t define me. For the film part, I’ve always loved films and even went to film school back in the day. What I have always loved most about great films is they connect me to a lived experience I would not have understood otherwise, and they help me live with a character for enough time to perceive the world differently. So it seemed like a natural fit.
I also still get this one a lot: “A whole festival devoted to films on mental health? Isn’t that too depressing?” I’ll admit, at times it can be a little emotional. But there’s as many ways to address mental health as there are nuanced facets of it. As a friend of mine said when I was first pondering it, mental health could be anything from a breakdown leading to a hospital stay to wrapping your friend’s birthday present in newspaper because you didn’t have the energy to go buy wrapping paper. There have been funny films about OCD and depression and even comedies about suicide. There have been some amazing, life-affirming true stories: a world-class conductor who lost his career due to a public manic episode who then started the world’s first orchestra composed of musicians with mental illness; a teenager who shot herself in attempt to end her life, paralyzed herself but lived through it, and found a second lease on life as a passionate advocate for suicide prevention; two artists who fell in love in one of the nation’s most notorious asylums and waited for years, visiting each other on day passes, to build a stable life for themselves on the other side. There have been depictions of mental illness as common as intending to attend a party and making out maps and routes and timetables only to not be able to leave the couch, to being talked down from schizophrenic episodes envisioning mind control by the police. These stories inspire me and give me hope.
However, it would be a lie to say that all stories of mental illness end in hope and recovery. They do not, and that is the very reason why these stories need to be told. And there have been stories that address how to cope with a suicide loss, with a broken mental health care infrastructure that has no easy solutions, with what happens when mental illness strains or breaks relationships or needs treatment. Though sad, these stories make me feel comforted. Even the ones without happy endings give me a window into someone else’s pain that feels relatable or a way to express grief. They make me feel like I’m not alone.
For all of these reasons Mental Filmness has been a great gift to me, and I hope to others as well. As with Mental Health Awareness Month, the first step to acknowledging these feelings and issues is awareness.