There is a very important short film making the rounds in film festivals now called Illness that takes a hard look at mental illness and how it can affect a family. The film recently won Best Short at the Gulf Coast Film & Video Festival in Houston and I had the honor to attend a screening in New York where I met many of the people involved including associate producer Randi Silverman whose son also stars in the film.
Gregory G. Allen: Randi -- thanks for taking the time to talk about this important topic with me. Can you tell me how you became involved as an associate producer with this film?
Randi Silverman: Carina Rush, the executive producer of Illness, and I have known each other for years. She didn't know that one of my children had suffered from mental illness and that I had become very vocal about raising awareness and educating the public. I spent hours on the phone with Carina and Jonathan Bucari (the writer and director) talking about the script and figuring out how to make sure that the film was as close to reality as possible. I was honored that they listened very carefully to my story and asked if I wanted to be an associate producer on the project.
Allen: You made an amazing statement at the NYC screening that it's much easier for you to talk about being a cancer survivor than it is for people to discuss mental illness. Why do you think that is?
Silverman: Throughout my battle with cancer, I spent a great deal of time pondering why I received casseroles and flowers almost daily during my illness, but when my son was so disabled by depression and anxiety that he couldn't leave the house I didn't hear from anyone! I believe that it all comes down to stigma. People are uncomfortable with things they don't understand and the only way to ease that discomfort is to educate and talk about the situation openly and honestly.
Allen: How old was your son when your family started to deal with this?
Silverman: By the time he was in 3rd and 4th grade he was exhibiting some behaviors, such as refusing to go to school, that we now know were manifestations of his anxiety disorder.
Allen: What was your experience with his school and others around you?
Silverman: When I became concerned about my son in first grade, the school psychologist told me that he was absolutely fine, but that perhaps I needed to see someone about MY anxiety or consider taking parenting classes.
Silverman: Mental illness tends to be invisible; a child who looks and acts perfectly "normal" in every other respect can be suffering terribly on the inside. My son would use all of his energy to get through the day at school, but would break down when he got home. Eventually, he completely shut down and people around me tended to disappear. The parents' of my son's friends no longer wanted their kids to be around him.
Allen: Your youngest son is amazing in the film (congrats on his best actor award at NWOFF portraying this very difficult role). I was touched by him speaking about his own experience of being the younger brother of someone with mental illness. How do you feel making this film affected him?
Silverman: When the opportunity came up for Noah to play the lead role, I sat down with him and explained that the choice was completely his and that I did not want to him to do anything that made him feel uncomfortable. Of course, I was concerned about the intensity of the role, but in the end I think it was extremely therapeutic for him to try to step into his brother's shoes, figuratively speaking.
Allen: That's so amazing. What do you hope will be the outcome of this film and the importance it has for people to see it?
Silverman: To me the film has already been a huge success because it has provided valuable opportunities to discuss mental illness with the individuals who have seen it... people sharing their own experiences. We are working on a script for a feature film and hope that we can raise the funds to make that happen. At the same time, we are working on developing a curriculum based on Illness that could be used as an educational tool.
Allen: That is a wonderful idea! As an advocate for awareness, what type of changes have you seen in people and places as you've discussed this topic with them?
Silverman: The most interesting and rewarding thing for me has been seeing how open people actually are to discussing the issue. At the beginning of any speech or presentation I feel a great deal of tension in the room; it's so silent you can hear a pin drop! But as I get further into it, I sense a sort of relief. One of the messages I am trying to get across is that the only way to combat the stigma is to talk about it openly... to show there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of!
Allen: I think any parent that takes on the added responsibilities of special needs that certain children require are remarkable and should be commended. But at the same time, are there certain ways you wish the world to view you and your family?
Silverman: Thank you, Greg! I guess I would wish that people view us as just a "normal" family, with good and bad and ups and downs just like everyone else! At the same time, people don't understand that when a child who has a mental illness "misbehaves" it's not a matter of bad parenting or lack of control on the child's part.
Allen: Randi, I thank you very much for sharing your story with us. Is there anything else you would want people to know?
Silverman: I want to thank YOU for allowing me to share it! I would also like to mention that 1 out of 5 children in the US suffer from a mental health disorder and it does not discriminate based on socio-economic or racial classifications. At the same time, only 20% of those who suffer actually receive the treatment they need. According to the World Health Organization, mental illness is the number one disability in the world. These are just statistics that we can no longer afford to ignore.
Photo Credit: 1st photo: Actress Cheryl Allison (Best Actress winner) at Southampton International Film Festival in England with Producer Carina Rush Courtesy Carina Rush.
2nd Photo: Actor Noah Silverman (Best Actor winner) at The Northwest Ohio Independent Film Festival Courtesy Gabriele Photography