During the last school year, many Palo Alto high school students were spurred to action in different ways in response to several teen deaths by suicide.
Some flocked to school board meetings to make sure their voices were heard, loud and clear, by elected officials. Others created wellness committees, organized and participated in community dialogues about teen mental health, posted words of encouragement and support on notes all over campus and spoke out in YouTube videos, blog posts and newspaper opinion pieces that quickly went viral.
And one group of students decided to make a movie.
"Unmasked," which is being released in September, is the product of 13 Gunn and Palo Alto high school students' desire to further open community conversations about mental health, with an emphasis on hope, communication and moving forward, two of the student-filmmakers explained in an interview this week.
The documentary follows two story lines one real and one fictional. The real story line begins with Palo Alto's suicide cluster and moves toward exploring the roots of teen mental health issues. While working on the film, the student-filmmakers distributed an online survey to close to 200 of their peers with questions about what causes stress for them and feedback about what could change within the community to better support teens.
The fictional story line follows an anonymous teenage boy whose settings are unknown (which was done on purpose to make his story more universal) grieving and processing a friend's death by suicide.
"He has a really hard time processing it at first," explained co-director and rising Paly senior Christian Leong. "He really starts to question what he does and why he's doing what he does, but by the end, as we move into the section of moving forward (and) providing help, he eventually finds help and the two story lines merge."
Leong and rising Paly senior Andrew Baer, who both enjoyed filmmaking and felt compelled to somehow capture how they and other students were feeling last year, started working on the documentary in April. They soon realized they needed more help and found other film enthusiasts some who they already knew and some who they didn't from both Paly and Gunn to help out. The group grew to include: Gunn seniors Yui Sasajima, Lydia Sun, Tanner Kerrins and Rachel Rothburg; and Paly seniors Josh Yuen, Zack Gibson, Joseph Kao, Daniel Cottrell, Leslie Garcia, Natalie Snyder and Stas Ilyasov.
The students met every day this summer to plan and film. They interviewed a range of people, from students and teachers to Superintendent Max McGee, medical professionals, alumni and parents. They also visited Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, which is working to reduce mental health stigma, and REACH Ashland Youth Center in San Leandro, which is operated by the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency and provides free health, career and other support services to youth ages 11 to 24 years old.
The film will premiere at a free screening on Saturday, Sept. 12, at 6:30 p.m. at the Palo Alto Children's Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road. A Q&A panel with the student filmmakers and mental health experts will follow.
This screening quickly sold out, so the filmmakers are hosting a second one on Sunday, Sept. 19, at 6:30 p.m. in the El Palo Alto Room at the Mitchell Park Community Center, 3700 Middlefield Road. Tickets are limited; to register, go to eventbrite.com.
Watch a trailer for "Unmasked" here.
The Palo Alto Weekly has created a Storify page to capture the numerous voices, opinions and our news coverage on teen well-being. This page will continue to be updated. To view it, go to Storify.com.