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Ken Burns’ “Hiding in Plain Sight…”: Candid Interviews, Canned Conclusions

by Miranda Spencer

A few months back, I reviewed a small, independent film called “Just Like You: Anxiety and Depression.” It was designed to educate youth, teachers, and families about teen mental health in hopes of busting stigma, stirring compassion, and “saving lives.” But it mostly served to reinforce biomedical-model myths and misinformation that encourage teens to view themselves as incurably ill.

Now, with the debut this summer of the Ken Burns-produced “Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness,” a four-hour PBS documentary with similar goals and a better pedigree, I was hoping for more accurate representation. What I saw instead was a glossy patchwork of mixed messages.

Storms and Survival

“Hiding…” is the capstone of the Well Beings Youth Mental Health Project, a collaboration among PBS and other major media launched in 2020 and funded by Otsuka America Pharmaceuticals, Kaiser Permanente, the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, and others. It is divided into two parts.

Part 1, “The Storm,” offers an unvarnished look at the lived experience of more than 20 diverse, articulate young people aged 11 to 30-something. Through interview clips shot in the intimacy of their own homes, the youth (and sometimes family members) talk candidly about their emotional distress, self-destructive behaviors, and extreme states. It isn’t pretty: They face bullying, racism, and homo- and trans-phobia; parents who are divorced, addicted, ill, absent or in jail; being adopted or in foster care; and physical and sexual abuse. They feel unbearable sadness or crippling fear, starve or cut themselves, abuse drugs and alcohol, have “manic episodes,” and battle voices and visions only they can perceive. Yet they’ve felt they must mask their misery, fighting alone as best they can.

This section, and the rest of the film, also tell us how to interpret these stories. It presents an “Adolescent Psych 101” survey of mental health topics from anxiety to suicidality, complete with definitions on PowerPoint slides and commentary from adult experts: a kindly therapist, a pragmatic child psychiatrist, a neuroscientist, peer and school counselors, and mental health advocates.

Read the full Made in America story by Miranda Spencer »