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San Diego teen filmmakers speak up about mental health, win top prizes in CA student film contest

May is Mental Health Awareness Month a time when a statewide student film competition awards winners for their videos done on youth anxiety and suicide prevention.

VISTA, Calif. — For 10 years, a program called "Directing Change" has found ways for teenagers to express difficult topics of anxiety, suicide, and discrimination through art, and one middle school is excited they won first place in the statewide student film contest.

Rancho Minerva Middle Schoolers created a 1-minute PSA film titled "Dear Future Me,” it opens with the statement "Dear future me, I am writing this letter to let you know that although your teenage years were hard, you will make it."

The short film shows the students reading aloud letters they wrote to their future selves about how they got passed hardships.

One male student recites: "When you thought you were weak in the mental health challenges were too big to overcome."

8th grader filmmaker Adriana Chavez says in the two and a half months it took her and her classmates to put the video together, she thinks the topic of depression hits home for a lot of teens.

"With the script, and how we could relate to it, I think a lot of people our age could also relate to it and just like watching and hearing all of the lines,” Chavez said.

Arely Murillo, called “Arlo,” says acting in the film was like therapy for her.

"I was going through something really horrible, and when I had read through my script at the time, I kind of looked at it like this all kind of meshes with what I was going through at the time, so when I was speaking it through the camera, it was as if I acted and was speaking it to myself,” Murillo said.

Rancho Minerva Middle won first place in the Directing Change student film contest that gives out cash prizes to videos addressing youth mental health. Between the four films the school submitted, they won $1,250.

San Diego Unified School District's Canyon Hills High school placed second for their film on "Hope and Justice – Missing Kids of Color Diary PSA." The short video opens with a student writing in her journal to the theme from 90’s UPN sitcom Moesha starring Brandy Norwood, whose character often journaled.

The film narrator says, "Dear Diary, today was awful, and I felt awful,” and later adds among images of missing children’s photos, “We need to get justice and news coverage for all of these missing children of color."

The Directing Change contest went from 350 films 10 years last year to 1000 films entered this year across the state.

"The program started only as a high school program, but we but kept getting interest from middle school level, that hey, these topics are just as important in sixth grade as they are in 12th grade, so we need to be talking about them,” said Stan Collins, Directing Change co-founder.

Rancho Minerva middle hopes their PSA will be shown at the San Diego County Fair and through county mental health services, and to their Superhero, Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, who the film features and is celebrated for “putting yourself first."

“As a classroom teacher what it does for us and for my kids, is that it allows them to hear that it is 'OK' to talk about things that they are struggling with, and that it is okay for them to seek out help because there’s been such a stigma with mental health that you’ve had to hide it, and there was shame, but there is no shame, there is only power and healing when you can discuss what you’re going,” said Beth Duncan, Rancho Minerva Middle School video production teacher.

Duncan says her twin sister’s class also won a student film award in Riverside County. “Dear Future Me” is also entered in the San Diego IVIE, or Innovative Video in Education Awards, whose ceremony is on June 4.

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