Kevin Earley shares his mental health story in Ken Burns documentary
“Mike” has “an incurable disease. It will never get better,” a doctor told Mike’s father, a best-selling author (and former Washington Post reporter). Pete Earley.
He told the story of the devastating news in the documentary: “It’s unlikely he’ll ever be able to hold a job, he’ll ever get married, have kids. And there’s a good chance he’ll run into the police, get arrested, become homeless.
But at the White House last week and on screens across America, he uses his full name – KevinMike Earley. And he has a graduate degree, a job, and a busy artistic life.
“If we say there’s no shame in having a mental illness,” said Kevin Earley, 43, “how am I going to walk around using my middle name?”
Earley is one of more than a dozen Americans featured in Ken Burns’ latest documentary, “Hiding in plain sighta two-part article about the startling mental health crisis gripping our nation’s youth.
A 15-year-old New York girl who overdosed in class talks about her obsession with the pill and the three months she spent in nature as part of a recovery program. A An adorable 9-year-old boy talks about his suicidal thoughts. A family in Montana explains how difficult it was to make the 800 mile round trip to get their son to the mental institution that had room for him.
An abridged version of the doc was screened at the White House last week by First Lady Jill Biden, who invited the film’s subjects – mostly children – to the gilded screening room and acknowledged that their stories are “hard to watch. It is impossible not to be moved by the pain of these young people.
She pointed to the breakthrough that we as a society seem to be making – that like a cast for a broken leg or antibiotics for strep throat, we need to treat mental illness. “Mental health is health,” she said.
“But the solutions to address these challenges are not always clear,” she said. “The journey to treatment is rarely a straight line.”
And therein lies the next challenge, the key to success. To access.
There are mental health crisis lines. Rapper Logic (a guy from Gaithersburg who solves Rubik’s Cubes on stage – love him) had a hit song aimed at making an earworm from the national suicide hotline: “1-800-273-8255.”
But unless you’re a die-hard Logic fan, that might not be an easy number to remember. Thus, on July 16, the United States has a new emergency number for anyone in mental health crisis: 988.
It will connect the caller with waiting professionals who can help avert a crisis and put someone on the path to real help.
This is just the start, however.
In Pete Earley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book ‘Crazy’, the father explains how difficult it was to get his son to safety and get insurance to cover treatment for his bipolar diagnosis. “Mike” was in crisis, but until he revealed himself to be a threat to himself or others, it wasn’t easy to get treatment.
Another family in the film said they were told going to the emergency room would be the fastest way to get help. But once there, they had to wait another four months to find a doctor who would take them.
“Even if you’re a wealthy family, like we were, it’s tough,” Kevin Earley said.
He missed the White House event last week because he tested positive for coronavirus. But he was negative in time to be with the rest of the cast when the film premiered this week to a live audience in Billings, Montana.
It houses one of the film’s advisers, Kee Dunning, who invited everyone for the premiere. And it routinely has one of the highest suicide rates per capita in the nation, edging farther than Wyoming and Alaska, according to the Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention.
Earley said he loved meeting the other subjects – all much younger than him – for the first time.
“They are so articulate and well spoken and able to clarify their experiences,” he said. “I was amazed at how wise they are beyond their years. I wish I had that.
But it was a different world 20 years ago, when Earley started having bipolar episodes, and the cops were calling his family and saying “he’s crazy.”
“At least it wasn’t like the 50s, where they just lobotomized us,” he said.
Two hours before the premiere, the band decided to get tattoos to commemorate the event. They rushed to find a store in Billings to take the urgent job.
“Most of the others got the name from the second part of the documentary, ‘Resilience,'” he said. “I got the name of the movie.”
It’s the perfect message for Earley, now a peer counselor working in Arlington: “Hiding in Plain Sight”.