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Vermonter Ricky Davidson on addressing youth mental illness, new documentary

A graphic that is orange in the background, with silhouettes in purple and grey, and the words hiding in plain sight
Hiding in Plain Sight, Courtesy
A new documentary on youth mental health premiered Monday on PBS stations across the country. Two Vermonters participated in the documentary, sharing their stories of growing up with mental health challenges.

Tonight, the second part of a new Ken Burns documentary on youth mental health will play on PBS stations across the country, including right here in Vermont. The first part aired last night.

The film, called Hiding in Plain Sight, explores today’s youth mental health crisis through first-person stories of young people.  It's an intimate look at 20 young people who talk openly about the challenges they face with anxiety, depression, addiction, hallucinations and more.  

Two of them have Vermont ties. Yesterday, we spoke with Samantha Fisher. Today we'll hear from Ricky Davidson, who is now a school counselor in Brattleboro.

Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with documentary participant Ricky Davidson. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ricky Davidson: I grew up in a family with issues that many families deal with. You know, substance use, divorce, some domestic violence situations. I was also growing up as a gay young person in a family where that wasn't acceptable. So I dealt with some depression and those kinds of things.

And in my early teens, I turned to substances to try to deal with all of the things that I was feeling, that I had no other outlet for.

Mitch Wertlieb: Was there anyone you could speak with growing up? Any close friends that you could confide in, if you couldn't talk to your folks or to your, you know, siblings or what have you?

I had some peers that were friends that may have been supportive. But at the time, I didn't know that, I didn't know they would have been supportive, and I assumed, like I think a lot of young people do, that they're alone. I assumed I was by myself, and I was the only one that was going to be able to figure this out.

"I think that it's beyond just sort of normal sadness, or anxiety, or nervousness or depression, and it's more of an immobilizing feeling."
Ricky Davidson

As I said, you're working now as a school counselor in Brattleboro. So you talk to a lot of young people. Do you ever see somebody who you think may be having a mental health challenge, and you can tell they don't want to open up, and you have to make that decision about, OK, now I have to push a little harder and try to get them to, because it can be critical, can't it?

It definitely can be critical. And I think that there are definitely times, especially early on, that everybody, not just young people, but anybody, when they're starting to connect with a counselor or a therapist or social worker or something, they're apprehensive. So it takes time to build some trust and rapport, where that person, especially that young person feels like this is somebody I can open up to. And it's a gentle balance between pushing, but not pushing too hard or too much or too fast. But pushing enough to get through to the next thing.

One of the themes that really emerges in this film is how different each person's own experience with mental illness can be. So if you had to describe to someone who doesn't really understand the problem, you know, what is mental illness? How would you describe it? 

That's a great question. I think some people who don't quite understand it, maybe never experienced mental health challenges, really thinks about it as a, “Oh, I've had a down day or I've felt sad before so I must understand depression”, or "I've been nervous about something so I must understand anxiety." I think that it's beyond just sort of normal sadness, or anxiety, or nervousness or depression, and it's more of an immobilizing feeling. So it's feeling sad to the point where you feel like you can't move or do anything, or feeling so nervous that you're really stuck, or so angry that you can only make the wrong choice.

But it is very individual. Different people really experience it in very different ways.

More from Vermont Public: Vermonter Samantha Fisher on sharing her mental health journey in new documentary

Because what you just said may resonate with a lot of people who are going through a lot of these struggles, what then do you tell them when you have that feeling of immobilization as you put it, where you feel you just, you can't break out no matter what you do? How do you advise somebody like that? What is the next step?

I really try to work with them around, "OK, you can't take a big step right now. What's a small step you can take? What's the one thing you can do? And let's take that small step. And I'll walk that step with you. And then the second small step, may be a little bit easier than the first small step. And the next thing you know, you're taking your third small step, which really adds up to a big step. You made a big step."

And really breaking it down into something that feels manageable, and doable — to break through that stuck or immobilized feeling.

One of the things you talk about in the film is the effect of social media, which is something that folks in different eras really didn't have to worry about. This is a relatively new thing, bringing new challenges. What are some of those challenges? And what advice do you give young people in that regard, whose lives often revolve around social media?

I often ask the students that I work with to take some time to unplug, to disconnect from social media, to disconnect from their phone. And on one hand, there are really great social media apps or connection points that can be made for somebody who feels really isolated. At the same time, too, it can be way too much information all at once, or it can be some negative information, you know, we hear about it often in the news where somebody was bullied through social media or things like that.

So it's really a double-edged sword. There is some positives that's there. But I often work with my students and say, “Alright, take some time to unplug. Turn your phone off tonight when you get home and don't turn it on until tomorrow morning. So you're not getting bombarded and barraged with a whole bunch of extra information, and other people's thoughts and opinions, so that you can decompress, you can let some stuff go, you can process through stuff without all the extra noise.”

Hiding-in-Plain-Sight-Trailer 60s-Courtesy-20220628.mp4

What would you like to see happen to help improve the resources and the help that's available for people who are experiencing mental health challenges? What's lacking right now?

The big thing that's lacking right now is the amount of qualified people that are available. In my area of Vermont, every therapist and social worker and counselor in the area has waiting lists. There's people who want and need services and can't get them. There's a lack of beds in either inpatient or residential treatment facilities.

So there are just people on waiting lists for long periods of time. So there's just a lack of resources when people are ready to take them. Some of the stigma around mental health is getting better. So they're ready to like, "Yeah, I need help," and then there's no one to turn to, because everyone has a waiting list, or there's no beds available.

What about that stigma? You say that maybe things are improving a little bit? Do you think that this documentary might be another step in changing people's minds about the way they think about mental illness?

I hope so. I really do. I think that, especially the young people in this film, did a remarkable, remarkable job talking about their experience and explaining who they are. And if you have young people around you in your life in any way, you can see them and the young people that are in this film, that in some ways, they look like every other kid in every other high school, across the country, and they're dealing with challenges.

So I think that that will help with the stigma a lot, because people will really see people they know in the faces and in some of the stories and some of the experiences that are in the film.

Have questions, comments, or concerns? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Karen is Vermont Public's Director of Radio Programming, serving Vermonters by overseeing the sound of Vermont Public's radio broadcast service. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She has produced many projects for broadcast over the years, including the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke, and interviews with local newsmakers with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb. In 2021 Karen worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
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