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Get Reel: These young filmmakers hope their work can help youth battle mental illness

Luke Galati says he’s well known as a filmmaker for his work on basketball and other sports.

That’s why many might be surprised, he says, to see his latest documentary on what it’s like to navigate a mental health crisis in Toronto.

“It’s kind of my first time where in a story I’ve been vulnerable,” said Galati, 26,. who received a bipolar diagnosis in 2017.

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“But I think that it’s really important because … if I don’t feel comfortable enough to share my own story, then how can I expect others to open up and be vulnerable with me?”

That’s why Galati and three other filmmakers have made short films to dispel the stigma, raise awareness and encourage youth struggling with mental health issues to seek support from Stella’s Place, a Toronto charity. The films will premiere on June 6 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox, as part of the Get Reel Mental Health Film Festival. It will kick off with a filmmaker workshop this Wednesday in recognition of Mental Health Awareness Week.

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The stories the films tell should resonate with many young people across the country. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, mental illness affects about 1.2 million children and youth, and by age 25, about one in five Canadians are affected. Youth who need mental health services as they enter the adult mental health system are often not well supported, as less than 20 per cent receive appropriate treatment, the commission says.

Galati, a masters student in documentary media at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson), says his film When People Are in Mental Health Crisis, Who Should Respond to That Call?, explores the Toronto Community Crisis Service.— a pilot project where nurses and other trained crisis workers respond to mental health calls instead of police officers.

He says not only was the film part of his healing process, but it can help him show others that a change in society’s approach to mental illness is coming. 

“I live with bipolar, and I’ve found myself in situations where I’ve needed help,” said Galati.

“So, hopefully, telling a little bit of my story will raise awareness, get people to talk about the issue and push the conversation forward.”

Creativity and mental health 

The idea of getting filmmakers to produce art for, by and with other young people as a way to navigate mental health issues came out of the isolation many experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, says Donna Green, the founder of Stella’s Place.

“We found out quickly this is a keeper,” said Green.

The Get Reel festival initially started last year as a digital pilot project that quickly grew in popularity. This year, the organization says it offered $5,000 grants to each filmmaker and partnered with TIFF Bell Lightbox to screen films. It received over 30 applications.

Musician and filmmaker Emmanuel Teji was one of the people who got involved. His film, Acidwash, follows the journey of an isolated artist on the brink of suicidal ideation who finds support through a local skateboarding community — much like Teji himself did during the pandemic.

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Emmanuel Teji, third from the left, says he was inspired to a create a short film based on his own experiences finding support in the skateboard community while dealing with isolation during the pandemic. (Submitted by Emmanuel Teji)

His film is an homage to those who lost their battles with mental illness in one form or another, and a reminder that we are all going through similar struggles in life.

“Life can be very tough at times, and it can be very close to feeling like you want to give up, but you can have a blessing waiting for you right around the corner,” said Teji.

A reminder to push forward

Despite the success of the film festival, Green says the organization is still working to address the growing demand for services since the pandemic began. 

Stella’s Place says its wait lists for free counselling services, like those of many mental health organizations throughout the pandemic, shot up from about a dozen inquiries per week to 12 to 15 per day. 

“I think it can be very challenging for young folks to be without their peers in this isolating two years — whether that’s just hanging out and doing stuff together or going out to find partners,” said Green.

She encourages young people to use not just Stella’s Place’s drop-in resources and networks, but to speak to other organizations and loved ones for support. 

Galati hopes his film helps others to gain the courage to do that.

“I think mental health is something that we should talk about more in society,” he said

“I think that it’s something that’s only going to improve as we tell more stories like this.”

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