Fighting the stigma of mental illness one film at a time
by Gary Foster
Movie making is an intense and all consuming experience. Each time you start the journey, you create a bubble that surrounds your team, keeping everyone focused and protected from the interference of the “outside world.”
A few years ago, I embarked on a film entitled The Soloist. It was based on the true story of Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and Nathaniel Ayers, a then homeless street musician – and the unlikely friendship that changed their lives. The film was rooted in the deep realities of Los Angeles’ issues to manage its homeless population — a significant percentage of them deal with mental illness.
In order to better communicate the issues, the director, Joe Wright, and I committed to make the film with the involvement of the Skid Row community. We invited them into our process – inside the bubble. It was an inspiring idea, but the execution would prove challenging.
For weeks on end, I walked Skid Row. To say that I was out of my comfort zone is an understatement. The streets were filled with tents and porta-potties. The stench was hard to miss. I witnessed people smoking crack and shooting up. Others were screaming at no one in particular, sharing their feelings and revealing their misery. But in all the chaos, most everyone I encountered went out of his or her way to say hello or reach out a hand or smile, as I passed by.
There is a big sign atop a building on San Julian Street that says Lamp. I wandered into the courtyard at Lamp Community Frank Rice Access Center — a simple and clean drop-in facility open to anyone looking for help.
I met Bam Bam, a transgendered vet who was trying to reunite with his daughter, and Danny, a silver medalist at the 1984 Olympics, who was recovering from a crack addiction and trying to rebuild his once promising life. And a thin African American woman named Detroit, who walked over and started quizzing me. Who was I? What’s your deal? I like your sneakers. I began to answer, but she wouldn’t let me get in a word as she kept talking about her three daughters, how she was an actress and was doing tricks for money, and smoking crack every night. I asked why they called her Detroit? ”Because I am a motor mouth.”
As the weeks went by, I opened up and began talking about my work and balancing it with family responsibilities. While there was a socio-economic divide, there was not a humanistic one. I knew more about the details of their lives and dreams than I did about some of my closest friends. I felt refreshingly comfortable. It was real. We loved each other, helped each other and supported each other unconditionally.
One of the highlights of making the film was the night we re-created life on Skid Row. Joe Wright and Seamus McGarvey, our brilliant DP, set up a long crane and dolly shot. It was designed to be a living mural. Every one of the hundreds of performers on the street that night was an actual Skid Row resident. This was their opportunity to tell the world their story. It was one of the most emotional moments of my career. Life became art as the troupe of Skid Row performers acted their stories as a record for eternity.
Months after The Soloist was finished, I still made weekly trips to Skid Row. It was not a part of the job anymore. It was a life choice. I became a sponsor for Terri “Detroit” Hughes. Helping her get back on track was not without its share of difficult moments. When she was off her meds, the rage was scary. Her courage to find a better life drove me to open up my heart and mind in ways I never imagined. Detroit was determined to get better and is now living a productive, healthy life back in her hometown of Evansville, Indiana. She has been reunited with her daughters and is working to open up a homeless shelter.
With the recent violent events (Newtown, Fort Hood) in our country, the spotlight on mental health and the lack of resources to help those who cannot help themselves is sharply focused.
It angers me that someone can break a leg and receive help in any hospital, but those with mental illness are turned away and pushed to fend for themselves in the dark corners of our society.
They are neglected and shunned. It’s the social stigma placed on the condition that makes me angry. Our society chooses to ignore them, which causes frustration and at times violent reactions by the people who are looking for help. We have reduced the funding for care and outreach they so desperately need. It’s an illness.
When cancer goes untreated, it quickly increases one’s odds of death. When mental illness is not treated, the disease causes a deterioration of one’s mental capacity, which can lead to aggressive behavior, self-destructive actions and death. We see people wandering the streets, acting strange and we call them crazy or dangerous.
We must change our attitudes toward this disease. A lack of funding does have a direct effect on other areas – like policing, housing, emergency and social services. Studies show that when someone has a home and a social safety net to support them, the rate of criminal activity goes down, as does emergency medical costs for tax payers.
This injustice drove me to join the board of Lamp Community. Lamp’s staff meets you where you are and provides wrap around services and housing to the most vulnerable. We are leading the charge to provide support off of Skid Row, having just signed on to deliver our services in conjunction with the Department of Heath Services, in a brand new facility in Compton.
Many times we see our work experiences with a narrow focus. That bubble we construct around our work limits our view. I see that safe haven differently now.
While Hollywood has certainly made films that it can be proud of, I wonder how many times we have not allowed ourselves to see the full picture. My life would be much less rewarding if we shoved real life aside as “Hollywood” came to town. I am convinced that our decision to be inclusive – to give a voice to those who society shuns — helped the film resonate around the world.
Life became art, which turned back into a fuller life.
Please check out:
LACDMH (Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health) PSA: