Seattle doc makes doc film to get mental illness higher on global health agenda

Delaney Ruston spent a lot of her early days as a physician working in clinics for the poor and disenfranchised, like Berkeley Free Clinic and, later, Seattle's Pike Market Medial Clinic with a few of area's leading and long-time health activists Les Pittle and Joe Martin. Partly as a result of her father's schizophrenia, she's now a documentary filmmaker advocating greater awareness of mental health needs globally.

Delaney Ruston spent a lot of her early days as a physician working in clinics for the poor and disenfranchised, like Berkeley Free Clinic and, later, Seattle’s Pike Market Medial Clinic with a few of  the area’s leading and long-time health activists Les Pittle and Joe Martin.

Delaney Ruston
Delaney Ruston

“Early on, I kept wondering why we, the medical community, usually just communicated by giving talks and writing reports,” said Delaney. Why, she wondered, did the medical community not make better use of video, especially as a form of physician-doctor communication, since it is so emotionally compelling, personal and we’re such visual animals?

That question, or more accurately her answer to it, started Delaney on a new career – as a documentary filmmaker. It was also the way in which she sought to connect with and understand her father, who had been diagnosed — after many years of it going unrecognized — with schizophrenia. Delaney’s film about her father, Unlisted, a prize-winning film acclaimed for its powerful and very personal look at mental illness.

Opening this weekend in Seattle, as part of the Seattle True International Film Festival (STIFF), is Delaney’s latest film Hidden Pictures – a documentary that features actor Glenn Close and travels around the world — from Seattle to India, China, Africa and France — to bring us up close and personal with what it’s like for families to deal with mental illness in different cultures and places.

“Doing that film with my father really changed me,” said Delaney by phone from Delhi, India, where she has been living for the past few years with her husband, Peter Small (a TB expert for the Gates Foundation), and kids. “I think the primary purpose for a documentary film is to start a dialogue…. I think we need to ask ourselves why mental health is still so neglected, why it continues to be ignored as a major global health issue.”

As noted frequently (here and here) at Humanosphere, mental illness could be called the most neglected global health issue.

“This was a very difficult film to do because it was much harder than I anticipated to get people to come forward and talk about mental illness,” Delaney said. “I think there’s still a lot of shaming, and blaming,” she said, and perhaps a certain amount of subconscious unease for many of us with mental illness.

The goal of Hidden Pictures, Delaney said, is to both help educate everyone about the way mental illness is dealt with (or not) around the global and to promote more open dialogue aimed at finding solutions. She is working with the famed mental health advocate Vikram Patel (who I’ve interviewed on this topic as well) on a project showing how low-skilled community health workers can be trained to assist with mental health care in even the most challenging situations.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.