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Building Connections: A Conversation with Erik Ewers of Hiding in Plain Sight

May 21, 2024

Doing a project he was “voluntold” to do by Ken Burns, documentary filmmaker Erik Ewers learned more about himself than he expected.

“[Mental health] affects everyone on multiple levels. And it’s not something that’s going to go away,” Erik said. “That first and often, most difficult step is to start talking about it.”

Erik worked with his brother, Christopher, and Ken to develop, direct, and produce Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness. The two-part PBS documentary that chronicles mental health challenges and illnesses faced by youth today.

“Statistics say it’s one in four,” Erik said referring to youth who struggle with a mental health challenge or illness or are living with a substance use disorder. “My brother and I realized it’s four in four.”

Joe Wilson, JSSA’s Senior Director of Mental Health Services interviewed Erik at a JSSA donor appreciation event held during May, which is also Mental Health Awareness Month. Joe oversees JSSA’s mental health programs, including JSSA’s Wraparound program, MindCraft, Camp Greentree, and the Youth Advisory Council in Fairfax County, Virginia.

He said that much like JSSA’s approach to mental health care, the documentary was very person-centered. Youth are not labeled or identified by a diagnosis or by their struggles, he said. Rather, individuals speak to their own understanding of themselves and their own experiences.

“The most common element of this is that we are all, in many ways, the same,” Joe said. “We all struggle with the same concerns and challenges, and it is about resiliency.”

Building Connection and Community Among Youth

Documentary filmmaker Erik Ewers speaks on JSSA panel on youth mental health.
Documentary filmmaker Erik Ewers speaks with JSSA about the making of Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness.

Hiding in Plain Sight features personal stories from more than 20 young people who’ve experienced mental health challenges. Erik said he felt privileged to hear from these youth directly. He was surprised by their level of honesty in front of the camera.

As one example, Erik told the story of one young man who spoke about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father – something he had never talked about with a therapist or his own mother before.

Hiding in Plain Sight has been viewed by millions around the world. Erik, Christopher, and Ken are creating the next iteration of the project, which focuses on adult mental health challenges.

“The film does a wonderful job talking about the power of connection,” Joe said. “You really got an understanding of both their experience and what it means to understand a concept as broad as mental illness and how you connect with people to promote mental health.”

Joe and Erik’s conversation was part of an evening event that highlighted JSSA’s mental health services. JSSA takes an innovative approach to building connection and community among youth. The agency hosts group therapy in schools and an advisory council that works with local policy makers to inform mental health treatment and services.

JSSA’s work includes building partnerships in our communities so our programs reduce stigma and people feel confident and able to access the support they need when they need it. JSSA’s team of clinical social workers, therapists, coordinators, and psychiatrists is dedicated to providing compassionate and caring treatment that supports an individual’s overall well-being.

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