David Blistein
Courtesy photo
David Blistein

Awareness and empathy

Area writer David Blistein brings his own journey with mental wellness to his work on a PBS documentary series exploring the emotional well-being of young people. He started with interviews in Brattleboro.

BRATTLEBORO — David Blistein sits in his “office,” a table at the back of Amy's Bakery and Café downtown, enjoying soup while we talk about his work.

A novelist, screenwriter, essayist, and former ad man, Blistein casts a wide net which, he notes on his website, “is the culmination of a lifelong pursuit of wisdom, transcendence, and humor” nurtured by years of meditation and writing. Recently, he's dialed in that writing on issues of health - particularly mental health.

After college, Blistein spent several years selling books for a publishing company before settling in southern Vermont in 1980. After some 35 years in marketing and communications, primarily at his own ad agency, Blistein left the business world to focus on his projects, first traveling the country in a VW van to examine - perhaps escape, perhaps exorcize - depression, which had repeatedly taken him to the mat.

Author or co-author of several books, including a history of opium, and of documentary films, he has most recently worked with his longtime friend and Walpole, N.H.–based filmmaker Ken Burns, whom he first met when they were undergrads: Blistein at Amherst College and Burns at Hampshire College.

As we look out over the Connecticut River from Amy's back window, Blistein talks about his travels, his work, his relationship to southern Vermont, his peripatetic journey to mental health.

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While clearly enthused about all that's on his plate, including a film about Henry David Thoreau, it's his current work with PBS that drives Blistein now.

Since 2018, he's been writer and co-producer of a documentary series on mental health with Erik Ewers and Christopher Loren Ewers of Ewers Brothers Productions, based in Swanzey, New Hampshire.

(1)The first two episodes of Hiding in Plain Sight were released last June, and the team has since begun development of the next episodes. They're working, too, to help leverage the impact of the series by helping to develop a curriculum to accompany the series.

Blistein participated in the early conceptualizing and development of the PBS mental health series with Washington, D.C.'s public television station, WETA. After Burns agreed to be executive producer for the series, Blistein began working with Ewers Brothers Productions to manifest the vision.

The first two episodes include intimate interviews with more than 20 young people.

“I had written narrations about a wide range of topics,” Blistein says, “but we realized early on that the kids could say it better than I could ever narrate it.”

In the end, his writing primarily involved working with Director Erik Ewers to “choreograph” or “orchestrate” excerpts from the interviews focusing on specific topics while creating a coherent narrative about the lives of the young people in the film.

“From my perspective,” Blistein says, “they are the ones who really wrote the film.”

“I was primarily involved in connecting the team with leaders in the mental health field who helped us find young people and experts to interview,” he says.

Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a recovering alcoholic diagnosed years ago with bipolar disorder and one of the leading mental health advocates in the country, was an essential resource. So was Kennedy's wife, Amy, a former teacher who now heads the Kennedy Forum, a nonprofit that advocates for issues of school-focused mental health.

(2)Subjects were chosen for varying reasons reflecting the scope of the series covering a range of issues: mood disorders, self-harm, shame, bullying, self-image, addiction, suicidal thoughts, and the added stigma faced by young people from minority populations and/or with sexual orientation and gender identity issues.

Therapists, psychiatrists, and counselors came from all over the country, but early on, Blistein connected with Ricky Davidson - a member of the Brattleboro Union High School Counseling Department since 2019 - at the Boys and Girls Club of Brattleboro, where he was named director in 2016.

When the film was in nascent stages, Blistein approached Davidson, whom he'd known peripherally.

“Can I come pick your brain?” Davidson recalls Blistein asking.

In 2018, Davidson was the first to be interviewed for the film. “I heard nothing more for a couple years,” Davidson recalls, “but then an email came that said I'd made the final cut.”

Davidson, in the end, becomes a familiar face in the series.

He shares the approach he takes with a struggling teen: “You can get through it to the other side and be OK,” he says. “There're people out there that can help you get through whatever it is that's making you feel the way you're feeling right now.”

“It's not going to be easy, and it's going to be messy at times - and that's OK, because once you're on the other side of it, you're going to realize how strong you are.”

Places like the Boys and Girls Club and mentors like Davidson are critical to the mental well-being of youth. “Interestingly, we realized early on that, while our interviewees were willing and able to talk honestly about their mental health challenges, it's difficult for most adults to create a safe, nonjudgmental space for them to do so,” Blistein observes.

The series features subjects whose ages range widely and who hail from Montana to Rhode Island, but it was Davidson, who himself had struggled with dependency and identity issues as a youth, who found the first subject, Samantha Fisher, formerly of Brattleboro.

A regular at the Boys and Girls Club for years, Fisher aged out at 18 but still found a warm seat there to hang out with her sister, who was then on staff.

“That place was my rock,” she says.

“Ricky came in one day and said that there were some people coming to talk about a film on mental illness and that I needed to be there,” she recalls. She became the first young person interviewed.

Living now with family in Amarillo, Texas, where she works at a Montessori school, Fisher notes that she knew at age 10 that something was wrong. At 11, she started “weed and cigarettes.” By 13, she was taking pills, too.

She says that she finally realized, “I have limited time on the planet, and I don't want to struggle all the time.” An avid writer, she let it be known that something was wrong in a note left under her mother's pillow.

When some of the Hiding in Plain Sight interviewees met for the first time at a June White House screening hosted by First Lady Jill Biden, they sort of “fell in love with each other,” Blistein recalls. “They're all dealing with mental health issues: they all can feel compassion.”

About the experience with the series, Fisher says: “The only thing that continuously came up among all of us was that we just care that somebody sees [signs of their mental illness] and knows they're not alone.”

“The more we talk, the closer we can be to getting help,” she says.

Such help has allowed Fisher to evolve toward stability - and fulfillment.

She continues to write - especially poetry - and that has helped, she says.

“I'd be a whole lot worse without it. If I could buy a small house on the rocky New England coast and just write, I could die happy one day,” says Fisher.

Her poems reflect her introspective work that has been essential to her staying well, as you can see in this excerpt from “I'll Get There When I Get There”:

§Through the words I write,

§and the songs I listen to,

§and the people I spend my days with

§I will make the slow unending ascent back to me.

§Away from and out of this pit,

§I buried myself in to hide who I had become

§and to escape all the things that happened along the way.

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In laying out the series, producers were encouraged by Kennedy to put the tough material in the first episode, “The Storm,” while the second reveals the pathways toward health that the young subjects have found.

The first episode, Blistein explains on his website, focuses on “awareness and empathy - to show how everyone has been touched by mental health disorders - whether in their own lives or the lives of family, friends, and colleagues.” It zooms in with candor and acuity on those years when most mental health conditions first appear.

The series' narratives include situation-specific and often tough remarks from subjects, families, providers, advocates.

“No one held back,” Blistein says. “It seems more real than anything I've seen.”

The aim, he adds, “is to make it clear how many 'regular' kids suffer silently and invisibly from the wounds of adverse childhood experiences and factors such as the impact of 24/7 media, bullying, and ever-more-powerful 'recreational' drugs.”

The second episode, “Resilience,” was recently nominated for a Writers Guild Award in the Documentary Script - Current Events category. Replete with emotion and empathy, that episode also offers hardcore wisdom about the mental health system - its access difficulties, its limitations, its successes.

Participants talk about disruption and dysfunction within their families, about being shunned, about the confusions around gender identity, and coming out as gay when barely a pre-teen.

A transgender subject talks about counseling methods and the ineffectiveness of many in today's times: “It's like trying to run old software on a new hard drive.”

And another subject, a teenage boy, recounts learning that his friend was lost to suicide, calling the experience an “emotional heart attack.”

While Hiding in Plain Sight's third and fourth episodes are far from completion, current plans call for them to focus on mental health issues among older adults, those in the military, people in business, and those experiencing homelessness.

* * *

Blistein brings his own experiences with mental health to the project - a journey that he has well-documented in his 2013 memoir David's Inferno: My Journey through the Dark Wood of Depression (Hatherleigh Press). Enlightening, practical, useful, entertaining, it's everything from personal testimony to a handbook of essential information - complete with a glossary of mental health terminology. Blistein writes:

“Between 2005 and 2007 I experienced what used to be called a 'nervous breakdown.' As anyone who's tasted a walk on the mental health wild side knows, 'nervous' doesn't do the experience justice. In my case, it was a relentless agitation that careened from low-level anxiety to gut-wrenching, dry-heaving desperation.

“Tens of thousands of people have had experiences like mine. Many are reluctant to talk about them openly for fear it will affect their relationships, their careers, and/or their education[...].

“I hope,” he explains, “the book made some contribution to ongoing efforts to de-stigmatize these experiences - to treat brain disorders with the same compassion (and insurance coverage) as we do physical disorders.”

Loaded with epiphany and inquiry, David's Inferno parallel's Dante's dive into hell on this premise: “The only way out is in. And the only way up is down. Way down.”

Toward the end of his memoir, he comes to a point poignantly: “Feeling love for everyone around you is easy compared to receiving love from all around you. But when you're in the state I was in, you don't have a lot of choice. And that's one of the most humbling and healing spiritual lessons of all.”

When an undergrad at Amherst, Blistein recalls, he was always fast, manic, and intrigued by psychology and the workings of the mind. He had self-medicated and meditated until the late-'90s; eventually, therapies and prescribed medication - successful to dramatically varying degrees - brought him relief.

Since 2007, Blistein has worked with youth as a guardian ad litem, a volunteer who advocates for children involved in court cases. He credits that work for his growing understanding of what teens face in these difficult, digitized times.

* * *

Recently, Blistein and other team members took part in a workshop in Portland, Oregon, to consult on developing a curriculum with educators and mental health professionals for Providence Health & Services, a large health care system covering several Western states.

“They're building 24 curriculum units based on the chapters of the film, so a teacher, guidance counselor, or other person working with young people can focus on specific issues from mood disorders to self-harm, addiction, and suicide ideation. It was fascinating,” Blistein reports.

PBS also offers a host of resources at pbs.org/plainsight, organized under each topic covered in the interviews.

The first two episodes of Hiding in Plain Sight are also available to stream online for members of Vermont Public at PBS Passport.

Streaming and educational use can broaden the access and reach of a documentary series like this one, which fits with Blistein's goals.

“It's really been our vision for this to have a life well past the broadcast because we want the honesty (and bravery) of the young people talking about these difficult topics to inspire their contemporaries to do the same,” he says.

And, he notes, “people keep telling us that this series could save lives.”

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For more on David Blistein's work, visit davidblistein.com and davidblistein.substack.com.

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