Director Nate Townsend opens “Wake Up: Stories From the Frontlines of Suicide Prevention” with an attention grabbing re-enactment of Ryan Candice’s frantic attempts to quell his severe anxiety hours before taking his own life. However, the most powerful moments can be found within the interviews and facts that bolster the project’s compassionate purpose. Playing as part of the We Are One film festival (making its world premiering online June 4), this stirring documentary gives a comprehensive look at suicide through the lens of four at-risk segments of the population. Stories from war veterans, the LGBT community, college students and gun owners are interwoven as the film confronts difficult questions in order to address this problem — a problem as challenging as a complex math equation.
Suicide touches every corner of this country, from those overwhelmed by self-destructive thoughts — both the deceased and “attempt survivors” — to those who try to carry on after the tragedy. (I count myself among these “loss survivors,” still impacted by the unexpected passing of my bright, gregarious friend from high school.) The subject requires more than superficial questions; it demands an examination of the deeper root causes and the best avenues for treatment. The film doesn’t cast a wider net to include the impact on varying racial communities. But by focusing on the aforementioned population segments, it allows for a discussion about the issues facing these groups and the professionals treating them.
Without bludgeoning the audience with commentary, Townsend connects the four groups’ struggles and strengths through touching testimonials. The film parcels out the realities dealing with these communities’ situations (which might elicit a reactive “tsk” or gasp) in a digestible manner, allowing them to resonate with audiences at perfectly precise moments. A range of experts lay the groundwork for empathy and understanding, explaining how the mental health care system isn’t functioning successfully. Also represented are those suffering from PTSD, like Iraq vet Preston and Vietnam vet Rodger, and the pioneering efforts of National Center for Veterans Studies staff who try to pull these people out from the emotional wreckage, utilizing new forms of therapy.
Providing further insight into innovative change are Utah Sports Council chairman Clark Aposhian, Utah Rep. Steve Eliason, and Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy, all of whom have enacted practical solutions with great impact. The resilience exhibited by Candice’s parents in the wake of grief is heartening to witness, as are the actions of Michael and Gayle Zibilich, who’ve found a renewed sense of purpose speaking with college students about their own son Keller’s suicide. Equally moving are the confessionals with photographer Dese’rae Stage and minister Jonathan Werzel, both attempt survivors who are now dedicated to serving others. Threading together the human interest of each tale gives this tapestry a strong, cohesive weave. The sleek, stylish sheen doesn’t overshadow the underlying commentary that what’s truly broken aren’t the souls who can heal, but the system itself that desperately needs an overhaul.
Perhaps what’s most enlightening for folks without an academic background on this subject is seeing the suicide risk assessment training. Witnessing a class exercise in progress at the LSU School of Social Work, led by Dr. Margo Abadie, puts us in the midst of a hypothetical situation. From this safe vantage point, audiences see how to properly engage with someone having suicidal thoughts and help them work through their trying time.
Townsend and company have skillfully crafted a heartrending teaching tool that should be mandatory viewing for clinicians, academics, legislators and laymen. It’s made abundantly clear that there’s a dire need to do more for those suffering, all the more acute given the havoc the current pandemic and societal crises have wreaked, mentally taxing individuals who already feel compromised or at risk. The filmmakers’ careful construction of their cinematic plea ought to generate empathy from the medical community, funding from bureaucrats and more trained professionals in the field to help combat this epidemic. At least that’s the hope this documentary inspires.