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North County students honored for films on suicide prevention, mental health

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This past year has been a lonely one for students separated from their friends by the pandemic and distance learning. That shared sense of isolation helped inspire two award-winning films by North County students in the annual Directing Change Program & Film Contest.

Students at Rancho Minerva Middle School in Vista and Torrey Pines High School near Del Mar earned second-place awards in the ninth annual contest, which drew nearly 1,000 entries from California middle and high school students.

They were the county’s only award-winners in this year’s contest, which held its virtual awards ceremony on Tuesday. Founded nine years ago in San Diego, Directing Change is a nonprofit that promotes suicide prevention and mental health awareness through its annual festival of 60-second films. Over the years, 16,207 students have submitted a combined 5,963 films.

Stan Collins, co-founder of Directing Change, said the challenges of distance learning slightly reduced the number of entries this year, and many of the films submitted were created over Zoom. But contest judges thought the content of this year’s films was among the best ever, because so many students were facing the very issues they tackled in their films.

“Watching these films, it’s been like a historical record of the pandemic, seeing youth address their mental health,” Collins said. “There were lots of themes about students talking about how every day feels the same and they get lost in this ‘Groundhog Day’ mentality.”

A screen shot from "Mind Over Media," a short film by Torrey Pines High students.

A screen shot from “Mind Over Media,” a short film by Torrey Pines High students that won second place in the 2021 Directing Change Program and Film Festival’s Suicide Prevention category.

(Courtesy of Directing Change)

Mia Cohen, a junior at Torrey Pines High School, was on the five-student team that produced the film “Mind Over Media,” which won second place in the contest’s Suicide Prevention category. She recently showed the film to her little sister, who gave it high marks.

“She’s a freshman this year and it was really hard for her, since it was her first year of high school,” Cohen said. “She really appreciated it.”

Shot from the point of view of a teenage girl in her home, “Mind Over Media” shows the girl receiving a text from a friend offering support, after she expressed suicidal thoughts. Junior Zoe Canipe, who helped storyboard the script, said the film moves from darkness to light, to symbolize how a simple text from a friend can change someone’s outlook.

The “Mind Over Media” film was created by Cohen, Canipe and Molly Waters, who are students in Torrey Pines’ Peer Assisted Listeners (PALs) class, as well as student film editors Ava Wehlage and Eve Korchkov. Faculty adviser for the project was Jeffrey Owen. Korchkov said the film really struck a chord with her this year.

“I’ve seen friends start to spiral slowly,” Korchkov said. “You can see the signs and I always reach out to them and let them know they’re not alone, even if they don’t feel comfortable talking to an adult.”

Also in the Suicide Prevention category, Torrey Pines students earned an honorable mention for the film “One Text Away.” It was created by Olivia Schroeder, Emily Phong, Alexandra Perez Schwartz, Paige Wilson and Samantha Rokoszewski.

A scene from Rancho Minerva Middle School's short film "Pep Talk."

A scene from “Pep Talk,” a short film about teen mental health by students at Rancho Minerva Middle School, that won second place in a statewide film contest.

(Courtesy Photo)

Seven students at Rancho Minerva created “The Pep Talk,” which won second place in the Walk in Our Shoes category, which is specifically for middle schoolers. Its creators were Natalie Lopez, Jazmin Baca Guzman, Jasmin Lujan, Angelina Guerra, Jesus Aquino, Jesiah Gastelum, and Cristo Juarez and their faculty advisor was Beth Duncan.

The film features Lopez sitting in a park speaking to the camera offering words of encouragement about ignoring criticism from other girls and embracing her strength and self-worth. At the end, the camera angle changes to show Lopez is speaking to herself in a mirror.

Duncan said Lopez was nervous about appearing on camera for the first time but was passionate about her team’s film’s message.

“Although she was extremely nervous, she knew the importance of her role and words,” Duncan said. “She also believed that self-help and strength can be found from within, especially during tough times.”

Rancho Minerva students have won multiple prizes over the years in Directing Change and other local, state, national and global competitions. Duncan said she was happy that despite all the challenges of the past year, the students’ work was recognized.

“I am extremely proud of this class and my school, especially for working through the production process during a pandemic. COVID changed the way we worked, but it didn’t stop us,” Duncan said.

This year’s first-place winners were honored Tuesday night in a ceremony on Facebook Live, which featured actor Sterling K. Brown, who plays the anxiety-prone character Randall Pearson on the NBC TV series “This is Us.” Brown has been an outspoken advocate for mental health awareness, particularly in communities of color, where cultural traditions sometimes stigmatize seeking mental health treatment.

For now, Directing Change is open only to California students. Collins said he is working on a pilot program to produce Directing Change throughout Canada. His long-term dream is to expand the program nationwide in the United States.

A study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that student films produced for Directing Change are effective at increasing knowledge and skills as well as changing attitudes and behaviors related to mental illness and suicide prevention.

“The youth are learning all the things we want them to learn, but they’re learning it organically,” Collins said. “We want this to be a way into the back door to open up the front door to talk about suicide risk in youth.”

To see this year’s winners, visit directingchangeca.org/films/.

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