Building a Transmedia Project for Young Adults With Mental Illness, Their Families and Their Health Care Providers

Co-authored by Anuradha Rana, MFA, MA, instructor in digital cinema, and Doris C. Rusch, Ph.D., assistant professor for game design at DePaul University.

Transmedia has become a catchy word often heard at media conferences, academic symposia, glass enclosed conference rooms of ad agencies and the milieu of creative firms that feed them. Whether you've heard the word or not, you know what it is. It's storytelling, scaled across the spectrum of available media. It's the summation of social media, traditional films, short video snippets, audio stories and podcasts, interactive games and sequences, mobile apps, e-zines, blogs, print and web-based portals all working in tandem to tell a story. Today, it often feels like those stories aim to sell something. But telling stories across multiple media forms, tapping the strengths of each, offers the potential to develop meaningful stories in much deeper and more engaging ways.

Documentary filmmakers have been using transmedia elements as a part of their outreach and engagement strategies for years, as models of distribution have changed, giving filmmakers more investment and control of their film's reach. For instance Deep Down, a film on mountaintop coal removal, utilizes a second life virtual mine that can be used as an educational tool in classrooms. The Waiting Room, pairs a film about 24 hours in an ER waiting room with a 'social media' project that integrates blogs, conversations, behind the scenes videos, and interactive discussion. The reality is that any topic that makes for a good documentary film is usually more complex than a 1 or 2-hour film can explore (and still be considered entertainment). Spreading the story across multiple platforms allows more of that complexity to be explored in ways that remain engaging and impactful.

Documentary films addressing a social issue have a call to action at heart and often the film and activism go hand in hand. In such situations, the selling power of transmedia becomes a great tool. Filmmakers can reach diverse audiences who care about an issue and use the various media to provide separate entry points to the subject matter and multiple ways of engaging with the topic.

For our interactive documentary, For the Records, we asked ourselves the question: How could we use the specific characteristics of different media: the benefits of games and the embodied experiences they provide, while utilizing the power of documentary film to engage an audience emotionally, while providing enough context to flesh out the experience of living with a mental illness?

Like with so much of life (and art), we did not arrive at our approach directly. Initially, we focused on creating a support platform that could aid in community building amongst those involved with mental health issues -- for those living the experience, their family and friends, and mental health care providers. During this research process, we realized that one of the major obstacles in creating a supportive community and providing the resources that could help those facing mental health issues was a lack of empathy and understanding from others. This absence also contributed to the stigma surrounding people with mental health issues and is a potential cause of friction between those who experience mental illness, and their friends and family, society at large (and even health care providers).

We realized early that we needed to work closely with people who had lived experience, and we actively involved them in the conceptualization and design process of all media pieces. Anything else would have been disempowering, over-reaching and disingenuous.

We started with contacting organizations like NAMI, who generously allowed us to conduct interviews during their annual NAMI Walk in the fall of 2013 in Chicago, and Chicago Hearing Voices, websites (thank you Captain Awkward!), DePaul University's Dean of Students, Counseling Center, and School of Nursing. We called on our personal network and talked to everyone we could think of, including faculty at other universities in and beyond Chicago. As word of mouth spread, people reached out to us to share their experiences.

We conducted video, audio, Skype, and written interviews with people in Chicago and across the US, and ultimately engaged five individuals with lived experience of mental health concerns who lived in Chicago and would be able to interact with the productions throughout the development process. The idea that these individuals could serve as our subject matter experts narrowed our focus to OCD, ADD, bipolar and eating disorder. The fact that all four of these issues were common in young adults in university settings was equally important, because this was a university project that we envisioned helping our own and other university communities.

So at this point in the process, the idea was that each topic area (ADD, OCD etc.) would be centered on one person's lived experience and includes an interview, a short film or photo essay, and a game sequence. Salient aspects of the individual's lived experiences could become motifs that remained consistent across media. Each piece would be connected to the others of the same topic area, providing context and complementary perspectives.

For OCD, the main motif was compulsive ritual performance. Our ADD pieces focus on the issue of self-worth and doubt that accompany the necessity for medication to focus. The eating disorder film centers on the body as the target of perfection, but also the source of healing (through dance!). And finally, our approach to bipolar disorder concentrates on feelings of alienation from self and others in both manic and depressive states.

Each film uses quotes excerpted from exhaustive interviews conducted with each of our experts. Depending on the style of the piece, these quotes appear as text, as a voiceover narration, or as a combination of both. In Re-embody (eating disorder), we made a conscious attempt to use snippets of conversations and/or brief snatches from interviews as opposed to complete thoughts or opinions. This structure lent itself to the idea of memory and thought, how that leads to acceptance and growth depicted through the pensiveness of a dance sequence. In Wet Paint (OCD), we chose to focus on one ritual, combining live action with animation, to linearly narrate one specific memory about staying 'clean'. The abstraction came in the form of creating a silhouette of the character, removing their face, and adding animated 'dirt' in order to take the experience from the personal to the relatable. Similarly Broken (bipolar disorder) uses the Chicago 'El' trains as a visual metaphor for the manic state, using one guiding memory as a path to explore the agitation of risky behavior.

The short films, interviews and photo essays provide context for one another and also allow a 'way in' to the interactive game sequences for those who struggle with the idea of games vis-à-vis 'mental health'. Beyond that, these particular pieces of media allow the audience to sit back for a moment and observe. They allow a passive interaction as opposed to the more active engagement immediately required by the game sequences. Viewers can navigate through the various media at their own pace, based on their own growing interest (or lack of it). Links to resources and first person accounts fill in informational gaps.

The website hosting all the media will also utilize excerpts from the interviews as transitional pieces, to create an emotional resonance to the overall piece, to capture moments that can unravel an individual experience and by sharing them, unlock the experience for others to empathize with.

The result is a web-based experience called For the Records (, which employs films, interviews, photo essays, soundscapes, written stories and interactive experiences/games, and will go fully live in early summer 2014.

To be sure, we are not the first team of creatives and social scientists to use transmedia to address issues of individual and social import. For example, NFB's The Next Day is based on interviews with people who have attempted suicide, and Mind Check, a Canadian website, reaches out to youth facing mental health issues.

Still, when we first started talking about For the Records, we saw it as a means to broadly increase understanding of mental health issues by adding to the discussion and helping alleviate some of the stigma. And by providing the space for people to post their own stories, videos, games, comics, and sound pieces, we hope to build a community that can take on a life of its own.