November 6, 2015

MISC & Saks Talk Mental Health

SCA hosts first Mental Health Awareness Festival

Friday afternoon on the eve of Halloween, while much of campus decked their halls with cobwebs and UV paint, Eric Norwine and his father, Mark, greeted people outside the USC School of Cinematic Arts Ray Stark Family Theatre for Odyssey of the Mind, the University’s first ever Mental Health Awareness Festival. By 3 PM, more than one hundred people filled the theatre for the first of the day’s three events, co-hosted by SCA’s Media Institute for Social Change and the Gould School of Law’s Saks Institute with additional support from the Engemann Student Health Center and USC’s African American Cinema Society.

The festival had personal significance for the Norwines. Shortly after graduating the USC School of Cinematic Arts in 2012, Eric discovered that his father, Mark, had recently attempted suicide. It was Mark’s second attempt, though Eric had no knowledge of either prior to that.

Mark’s suicide attempt coincided with a number of other recent suicides in their home state of Missouri. The issue of suicide is particularly relevant to rural areas around the country, where suicide rates are three to five times more prevalent than in metropolitan areas. But the topic of mental health remains of concern to all areas of the country, especially so in university environments, where countless external stressors can cause significant emotional and mental duress to students.

To raise awareness for this frequently neglected epidemic, Mark planned a walk across Missouri seeking to educate students about mental health issues and to share his own story with others. Eric thought he and his father had ”a unique ability and platform to do something” about mental health awareness. So he solicited his close friend, filmmaker Josh Salzberg, to direct a documentary about the journey.

The 70-minute film, Walking Man, is culled from more than 100 hours of footage chronicling Eric and Mark’s 200-mile walk across their state. Following the screening, MISC director Michael Taylor and Dr. Elyn Saks of the Saks Institute discussed the making of Walking Man with the Norwines and Salzberg, and the film’s significance as an intimate platform for addressing the far larger issue of mental health.

“Everyone here knows someone who is suffering through mental illness because 20% of the population does,” says Mark, citing a statistic presented in the film’s opening. “So if you know five people, you know somebody [suffering through mental illness].”

“A significant part of all this for us is that our family is sort of a Norman Rockwell painting on the outside—middle-class family with three kids, parents always at every sporting event or first in line for the play,” Eric jokes. “Our hope with the film is to really provide hope for people who might be going through similar things and say, ‘You’re not alone. And there is hope for a better future, a better chance to really just live.’”

That message resonated on a highly personal level with one audience member in particular, a young veteran named Lolo who suffered in silence with bipolar disorder while serving in Iraq. Lolo was so moved after seeing the film on Amazon that, after reaching out to Mark over the phone, he and his mother drove up from San Diego to attend the event that day. He shared his gratitude during the audience portion of the Q&A, voicing many of the struggles the event was designed to explore as well as the reason why many of the audience members had also come to the auditorium.

“You guys are heroes. What you’re doing is saving lives,” Lolo said. “People may not understand—it’s a crippling illness. It’s a demon that takes you over and you have no way of fighting it. I’m here because I’m trying help my family too, because I’m trying to learn and educate myself. It really inspired me to see that quality of life as a father and son are fighting this together.”

“Your dad is a hero to me,” he told Eric. “I really appreciate that.” Lolo has also began working as an advocate, hoping to spread a message of hope through San Diego’s veteran community, an extremely high-risk population that loses 22-25 to suicide every day.

“We have these men and women who don’t die on the battlefield and come home and die in the US,” Mark Norwine told the audience. “We must do more for PTSD.”

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental health illnesses from which so many veterans suffer provided the thematic center for Present Trauma, directed by Mark D. Manalo one of three shorts screened as part of the day’s second event, after which Dr. Saks and Professor Taylor spoke with the films' directors.

The shorts, which also included Happy Bird by Osahon Tongo and Glass People directed John Berardo, were all MISC-produced projects, highlighting the Institute’s dedication to promoting responsible and socially impactful storytelling. For Happy Bird, Tongo even consulted one of the staff psychologists at USC’s Engemann Student Health Center to ensure the accuracy of his story, which was partially inspired by a past relationship with an individual who suffered from borderline personality disorder.

The evening ended on a high note, with attendants mingling over finger food, live music, and original artwork, much of it produced and curated by USC alumni. It was a fitting way to close out the day, showing that discussion of mental health issues can also be an uplifting and hopeful occasion.