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Teens find 'The Road Back' from depression and anxiety in new film

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Teens find 'The Road Back' from depression and anxiety in new film photo courtesy Acadia Hospital

Teenage depression and anxiety is the subject of a new movie that will premiere at the Gracie Theatre on Wednesday, March 21. The 35 minute film 'The Road Back' was largely created by a dedicated group of local teens and produced by The Acadia Hospital, Project Aware of Saco and Gum Spirits Productions of Portland.

Shot over five days last October at Hermon High School, the film is centered around Allie (Natalie Johnson, a senior at Hermon High School), who deals with depression, and Christian (Josh Devou, a junior at Hermon High School ), who suffers from anxiety. Over the course of the film, these two characters find themselves facing difficult challenges that are compounded by their conditions, but they are ultimately led to discover a way out through treatment.

It was important for everyone involved in the production of 'The Road Back' to keep the movie as pure and realistic as possible and that meant building a team of local youth to bringing the stories of Natalie, Christian and their families to the screen.

Sixteen-year old Faith Bishop of Hermon wrote and directed 'The Road Back' and says she got involved because she wanted to make a difference. 'I've seen so many people suffer from depression and anxiety,' Bishop said. 'I love writing and I wanted to see if I could help people with that, and it ended up being a very rewarding experience.'

The subjects of teen depression and anxiety are difficult on many levels. Bringing those subjects to the screen and doing it in a believable way was a challenge embraced by the team. Breaking away from the stigma that is often associated with both conditions was important for everyone involved in 'The Road Back,' as was the message that there is actually a way out and a road back.

Bishop told me that while researching and writing her script, she learned that depression can be difficult to overcome. 'It kind of sticks with you for a while but it does get better,' she says. 'The movie has helped a lot with me coming to terms with what depression is and the fact that it's not the fault of the person who happens to be depressed.'

One of the many unique aspects of this project is the fact that the students playing the two lead roles have actually dealt with their character's conditions in real life. Josh Devou says that, in a way, that actually helped him when the cameras were rolling. 'I didn't realize the extent of how I had dealt with it (anxiety) until I tapped into those feelings when I played Christian in the film. I used that, and I think it helped the overall quality of the movie.'

For Devou, landing the part of Christian was a surprise. He originally signed on as part of the audio crew, and when he decided to audition it was discovered that he would be perfect for one of the film's two lead roles.

Natalie Johnson, who plays Allie, agrees with Devou about tapping into real-life experience to connect with her character. 'I was clinically depressed for about three years. I didn't receive medication for it, but I went through it. In a way, it was kind of convenient for this role because I knew how to play it,' Johnson said. 'I felt alone and I didn't feel that there is anyone who could have helped me. That isn't the reality, but that's the way I felt at the time. When you go through something like that, you have that thought process.'

Last summer, when many of her friends were probably soaking up the sun, hanging with friends or spending hours on Facebook, Faith Bishop was meeting with story developers as 'The Road Back' began to take shape. 'As we went through our everyday lives, we picked up on things we saw and tried to come up with scene ideas from that,' Bishop told me. 'When we started, we didn't have a specific plot-line. We just had various scenes that we knew we wanted. We kept some scenes, deleted others and made a story out of it.'

Carl Lakari of Project Aware has been involved with several movies produced for teens by teens and says that one of the keys to making a movie like this work is the authenticity of the message combined with the fact that the films remain youth-driven. 'The films are of a very high quality,' Lakari said. 'We bring in people who have a lot of technical expertise to support the young people in the cast and crew, but at the end of the day it's important that they are happy with what they created. It's not a cheesy after-school project, it's a real film.'

Lakari and the cast gave me a sneak preview of 'The Road Back' last week, and I was extremely impressed with the acting, the story and the technical quality of the movie. 'The bottom line is that the movie is created by young people. It's written, directed by, cast, acted in, produced by the whole thing is really driven by young people with a lot of support,' Lakari said.

Music is used in 'The Road Back' to establish mood and enhance the action on the screen. Lucas Holmes, a student at Hampden Academy, created a score for the film which he wrote on piano and guitar. 'I wrote five songs in a month,' Holmes said. 'I kind of noodle around and when I find something I like, I write it down. Different songs are used for different parts of the film. The music has more tension when Christian is having an anxiety attack. When it's a sad moment, it's just soft.' Holmes said he wrote most of the pieces used in the film while viewing the footage. 'Carl sent me some test clips and I wrote songs based on the mood that was set in the clips,' he said. 'I watch the action and when I play something that sounds good, I'll keep it and build on that. We recorded the music at Main Street Music Studios in Bangor where I was granted two hours of recording time, which was awesome.'

The cast, crew and producers of 'The Road Back' believe strongly in this project and have plans to make a DVD of the film available to every middle and high school in Maine. For those dealing with the realities of depression and anxiety, either directly or by association as a family member or friend, it's the hope of everyone involved in the film that they take the first step and reach out for directions to find 'The Road Back.'

Josh Devou: I hope the movie gets people talking in a positive way to have a real conversation about these issues. A lot of times it (depression and anxiety) gets shelved or dismissed, but I hope this movie helps people realize that it is something real and I hope people talk about it.

Faith Bishop: I want it to inspire people help stop the social stigmas. I want it to help people take a step back and look at the faces of depression and anxiety and realize that it's a real issue and people can overcome it.

Natalie Johnson: I hope that people who do have depression or anxiety problems will see it and realize, 'I can get help with this. There are people who can help me feel better and realize they I don't have to feel so alone.' There are people who can help, and I hope this movie creates some awareness for that.

Jessica Manaker, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Acadia Hospital, spoke with me about depression and anxiety and told me she hopes that 'The Road Back' will help people realize that those conditions are very common and treatable. 'You really don't have to go on feeling this bad,' she said. 'If you're having feelings of worry, sadness or anger that has become so intense that you're not able to do the things you want to do, it's important to know that you can feel better and there are people who can help you feel better. Those feelings don't have to get in the way of you living your life.'

I asked Manaker how someone would know that they are experiencing depression and anxiety. 'Sometimes, it's withdrawing from activities that you would ordinarily find fun - changes in performance at school or work,' she told me. 'When someone is depressed, it's not always that they feel sad or hopeless - they may feel very irritable and more frustrated than sad. Everyone feels sad or frustrated at times that's normal. When we start calling these feelings symptoms, it's because they've gotten so intense, they start to get in the way. If the irritability or sadness is so big, they go along with changes in energy level, changes in sleep patterns and changes with doing what you want to do in your daily life - then we start calling that a symptom. It's important to know that you can feel better and there are people who can help you feel better,' Manaker said.

Sometimes it isn't easy to ask for help, and reaching out can be even more difficult when you're a teen or a child. During my conversation with Manaker, I asked her to recommend a 'go to' person for teens who may be dealing with depression and anxiety. 'Parents would be the ideal choice of someone they could speak with, but if they can't do that, I would suggest talking to your school guidance counselor,' Manaker said. 'Another good source would be your regular family doctor. Some teens are involved with church or synagogue activities you could reach out to leadership there. At Acadia Hospital, we have a variety of different levels of service for kids and teenagers with a very large out-patient department that includes the day hospital and regular therapy and medication management on an out-patient basis. In other words, they come here for treatment and go home the same day. There is also an anonymous mobile hotline in Bangor that kids can call if they have questions,' she said.

Acadia Hospital's communications officer Alan Comeau says Acadia Hospital first approached Project Aware about 'The Road Back' in the summer of 2010. 'Project Aware is all about youth empowerment, and they've been using film as a way for kids to express their concerns about certain issues,' Comeau said. In the past, Acadia Hospital and Project Aware have joined forces to create films tackling prescription drug abuse, bullying and other topics.

Comeau says the first step was to meet with students and ask them questions. 'We did some focus groups with kids in Old Town, Hampden and Hermon,' Comeau told me. 'We asked what they felt the issues were that they were dealing with, what their struggles were and things that were important to them.'

After meeting with the students, Acadia Hospital and Project Aware were convinced that there was a need for a movie like 'The Road Back.' The only obstacle in their path at that point was funding. Comeau told me things soon fell into place to allow the project to go forward. 'Thanks to our planning and development departments, we were able to secure funding from the Davis Family Foundation, who gave us $20,000,' he said. 'Bingham Program, another Maine-based foundation, gave us $5,000, and Spring Harbor Hospital in southern Maine is partnering with us and they gave us $5,000. Acadia invested $5,000 as well. With that money coming in, we said, 'We can green light this project.''

The money covered the cost of hiring Gum Spirits Productions (a videography company from Portland), the creation of material used to promote the film and the production and packaging of the forthcoming DVD. After the free public screening at the Gracie Theatre on March 21, Acadia Hospital plans to take 'The Road Back' to five different high schools in Maine, which will allow them to receive direct feedback from students.

Mirroring Carl Lakari's comments, Comeau told me that it was remarkable to see the kids behind 'The Road Back' take charge of the film. 'Acadia and Project Aware provided some guidance and structure but we've really allowed the kids to drive the movie,' he said. 'Faith (Bishop) has just blossomed with this project. She took it, ran with it and saw it to completion. Throughout the project, I could just see her gaining confidence.'

Once the script was finalized and the production crew assembled, the movie came together quickly. 'Eighty to 90 percent of the movie was done over five 10- to 14-hour days,' Comeau said. 'The students were just amazing. We were all thrown together in a focused way over a very short period of time with a lot at stake. They all had their roles and they were spot-on really professional about everything.'

After working so hard on this project for more than six months, you might assume that everyone involved has seen the film multiple times. Surprisingly, Alan Comeau says that isn't the case. 'It's interesting; some of the kids want to wait and see it on the big screen,' he said. 'They want to be there in the Gracie Theatre and experience it with the community.' What sort of feedback have they received from those who have seen the film? 'They've all been incredibly impressed,' Comeau told me. 'More people have seen the trailer (on You Tube), and even though it's only a preview, people are like, 'Wow.''

What's next for the students behind 'The Road Back?'

Faith Bishop: I'm working on a screenplay now for Project Aware that deals with substance abuse and family dynamics.

Josh Devou: After being in this movie, I got the lead role in my school's one-act play. I had no acting experience before 'The Road Back' and Project Aware gave me a new-found confidence, which inspired me to act more.

Natalie Johnson: I'm going on to USM in Portland and Gorham to major in theatre. It's a huge interest I love it. I wouldn't want to do anything else and I'm hoping it takes off because it's just a lot of fun.

Tickets for 'The Road Back' premiere at the Gracie Theatre, March 21 at 7 p.m., are free and available on a first come basis by calling 973-6119 or by visiting the movie's website, www.AcadiaTheRoadBack.org. The DVD for 'The Road Back' will include bonus features and will be available soon.

Acadia Hospital provides treatment and resources to help young people deal with depression and anxiety. If you have questions or would like to take that first step and reach out to find 'The Road Back,' call Acadia at 973-6100. Visit online at www.AcadiaHospital.org

Mike Dow is part of 'The Mike and Mike Show' airing each morning on Kiss 94.5. Check him out at www.Facebook.com/MikeandMike and www.MikeDow.net.

Last modified on Wednesday, 07 March 2012 14:07

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