Writer: Chris Jones and Nate Townsend
Director: Nate Townsend
One of the most significant consequences of lockdown has been increased pressure on mental health, whether households are trying to balance work and home-schooling or dealing with the impact of enforced isolation. Nate Townsend’s film Wake Up: Stories From the Frontlines of Suicide Prevention, showing as part of the We Are One online film festival, uses four very different approaches to helping vulnerable groups in the US.
This 90-minute documentary begins with a lot of statistics but the most important is that America has seen a 25% increase in suicides since 1999. This becomes the starting point for Townsend and writer Chris Jones to explore four of the most affected groups – students, the LGBT community, veterans and, surprisingly, gun owners – speaking to families, academics, governmental officials and suicide survivors to understand what support is being made available.
Around two thirds of Townsend’s documentary is concerned with the individual stories of suicide and suicide-attempts, focusing on narrative instead of analysis. It is an important topic and hearing first-hand experiences is vital, but the film is also muted about the specific causes of suicide. Of course these stories are necessary, not as a ghoulish exercise but to understand better why those in the film felt that suicide was their only option or, for the survivors, what makes them see life differently now.
It is only in the last 30-minutes that the broad statements about listening to others and looking for the signs become a concrete examination of the National Abilities treatment centre for veterans which admits patients rejected by other US care facilities if they have been dishonourably discharged. Several of their visitors talk openly about the snowball effect of self-isolation from families, drug addiction and homelessness that make it harder to ask for help, and focuses on Cognitive Behaviour and Cognitive Processing therapies to help former soldiers to better manage the long-term and wide-ranging consequence of PTSD. It is the most fascinating section, worthy of an entire documentary of its own.
There is also a crisis helpline for students established by parents who lost their son when his friends and later several hospitals failed to respond to him. The film talks with interest about the pressures of social media and smart phones that have caused a marked rise in campus anxiety, while a more official programme of trigger locks and a suicide prevention video for those renewing their firearms license in one state hopes to reduce gun-owner suicides.
These services should have been the core focus of Townsend’s film, showing the work of the teams that make these vital functions operational. Wake Up: Stories from the Frontlines of Suicide Prevention is, of course, a tribute to those who have died but it could also do more to emphasise what support services are available, giving a more detailed overview of how that help is provided.
That does not in any way detract from the value of the stories being told, especially the photography project run by a suicide survivor who captures images and experience of others. It is interesting work, especially focused here on LGBT survivors who speak with compassion not only about their own stories but also of ways to improve medical responses in the hours and weeks that follow.
The emphasis on mental health and the services available to support vulnerable people in very different situations is the documentary’s biggest achievement, showing that collaboration across sectors and between individuals from survivors, parents, gun owners, health professionals, and academics will help communities to recognise the signs and provide support when it is needed.
Available here until 9 June 2020