Local filmmaker spotlights global mental health agenda

Delaney Ruston last week screened her film, 'Hidden Pictures,' built around questions that arose from her own experience growing up with a schizophrenic father.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

When Patricia first met Jeff on the streets of Bellevue, he'd been homeless and living undiagnosed with severe mental illness for nearly 10 years. Though he had family in the area, they wanted nothing to do with him, Jeff somberly recounts for the camera.

“We live in the richest city in Washington state. If there had been a stray dog on the street, we wouldn't have left it,” says Patricia.

And so despite the reluctance of her grown daughter and family, she took him in.

Jeff and Patricia's is one of several stories explored in “Hidden Pictures,” a documentary, six-years in the making, about mental health care systems the world over. Many of the narratives hit close to home. The film debuted Sunday at Seattle True Independent Film Festival (STIFF) and follows families in India, China, South Africa, France and Bellevue's own backyard. It's not the first time local director and filmmaker Delaney Ruston, has taken on the topic of mental health.

Her first film, “Unlisted,” tells the story of her estranged schizophrenic father. Growing up she was so ashamed of her dad's fits of psychosis, that she unlisted her phone number and hid from him for a decade, while raising a family and beginning a career in medicine. But when Ruston's son began asking about his grandfather, she decided to revisit that part of her life, to satiate his curiosity, and help mend her own relationship. The film left Ruston with many unanswered questions about the role of family in the treatment and management of mental illness.

“I think I'm still baffled why we're not hearing more about the complete lack of attention to mental illness in many parts of the world,” says Ruston. “I'm hoping when we look back in history, we'll see now is the time that we started galvanizing. We have a global obligation to change the paradigm.”

According to the World Health Organization, 450 million people live worldwide with mental illness, and yet most healthcare systems fall dramatically short in dealing with the problem. The U.S. devotes only one to two percent of its healthcare budget to the cause; in developing countries 80 percent of those believed to live with mental illness, go without treatment.

“To me really, documentaries aren't the answer. They're just a starting point,” says Ruston. “My goal is to start the discussion.”

Ruston began making films 15 years ago. A practicing physician, the camera became a tool not only for her own therapy and understanding, but also to teach. In medical school, Ruston remembers feeling a disconnect between her studies and the patient experience, which she deemed critical to nurturing empathy.

There is a silver lining. Ruston points to the empathy of strangers like Patricia.

“Once people learn more, [when they] hear stories,” explains Ruston, “then their hearts open up, and that is where the future can change.”

“Hidden Pictures” follows the lives of five individuals. In China, Ruston meets Jeff, diagnosed – she suspects incorrectly – with schizophrenia after graduating from one of Beijing's top universities. Jeff has been admitted and living in a mental institution for eight years and though he seems high-functioning, his family's refusal to let him out keeps him effectively imprisoned. In India, a mother keeps her daughter's diagnosis of schizophrenia a secret. Resources are scarce even among the 16.31 million people of Delhi, and the burden of caring for a grown daughter, takes a visible toll.

“I often say mental illness tears families apart, not because of the illness itself,” observes Ruston, “but because whether you're in the U.S. or abroad, getting services can be so difficult.”

Her own memories are of a father who refused to take his medicine and a family who, in many ways, chose to stay at a distance. Ruston is now raising her own young children, ages 11 and 14 and hopes the silence about mental illness will end there.

"I think family, no matter who that is to you, is essential to treatment," says assistant producer, Linea Johnson, who grew up in Bellevue and herself lives with bipolar disorder. "This can be anything from blood relations to neighbors to teachers. Without a support network people find themselves very sick and in very dangerous places without knowing where to turn."

Both hope that dialogue provoked by such films as "Hidden Pictures," will galvanize change in mental healthcare systems across the globe.

“Data now shows the burden that these illnesses have on the human condition...So many people are affected, whether it be childhood disabilities, dementia or depression," says Ruston. "To completely ignore it is no longer an option.”

For more information about the film, visit the website here. May is mental health month. Additional information and resources is available through local affiliates of NAMI.

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