To help shine a spotlight on these feelings that are often kept in the dark, three Woodbridge High School students portrayed the important role friendship can play in a student’s mental health journey in their short film, “That’s What Friends Are For.” And the film’s creators, Marleen Juarez, Pauline Nguyen and Mahi Thakkar from the Irvine Unified School District, have since won first place in the suicide prevention category at the statewide Directing Change Program and Film Contest, hosted at The Theatre at Ace Hotel in Los Angeles on May 16.
The Directing Change program promotes awareness of mental health and suicide prevention by encouraging middle and high school students throughout California to create 30- to 60-second films on related topics. The nonprofit organization was formed in 2017 to help push statewide efforts to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health, prevent suicidal ideation and increase awareness of the growing mental health crisis among youth.
In recognizing students that address these topics through cinematography, Directing Change aims to utilize these films to further support mental health awareness, education and advocacy efforts. For its 11th annual competition, the organizers received more than a thousand film submissions from 178 schools and community organizations.
Students Anna Nguyen, Sophia Li and Orion Bentley from Las Flores Middle School in the Capistrano Unified School District won first place at the statewide competition in the “Walk in Our Shoes — What is Mental Health” category with their film, “Reaching Out.” In the mental health category, students Moses Fleischman, Alex Lu and Harrison Roberts-Dahlgren from Irvine’s University High School submitted the film “Sensory Overload” and placed third overall.
From 17 Orange County schools, 285 students participated this year and submitted a total of 95 films in the contest. In addition to those earning statewide recognition, students from Canyon High School, Irvine High School and La Quinta High School were honored regionally for their storytelling skills.
To aid students in the development of their films, the Orange County Department of Education’s Student Advocates for Mental Health program assisted with technical support while providing training and materials to a select number of middle and high school student filmmakers. The Woodbridge students behind the first-place film “That’s What Friends Are For” were among the groups that received support this year.
OCDE Program Specialist Stephanie Loscko said it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences to see the students write, produce, film and star in these pieces that bring a positive light to mental health awareness. In their work with initiatives like Directing Change, the Student Advocates for Mental Health team offers education, guidance and resources to student leadership groups to strengthen their mental health efforts.
“These are not just films in our eyes, but powerful tools to support mental health awareness and opportunities to begin important conversations that could change or save a life,” Loscko said. “The films may be short but the impacts are great. Having the opportunity to support our remarkable students with their Directing Change projects has been an honor. These are our future leaders and the future looks bright.”
The Directing Change program also offers instructional tools to educators and educational resources to classrooms to further their knowledge on suicide prevention and mental health. Educators and students interested in getting involved can learn more at directingchangeca.org.
Here are the winning Orange County student films, categorized by statewide and regional honors:
Suicide Prevention Category– First Place: “That’s What Friends Are For” Woodbridge High School Filmmakers: Marleen Juarez, Pauline Nguyen and Mahi Thakkar Advisor: Megan Humphreys
Mental Health Category– Third Place: “Sensory Overload” University High School Filmmakers: Moses Fleischman, Alex Lu, Harrison Roberts-Dahlgren Advisor: Hali Kessler
Walk in Our Shoes — What is Mental Health Specialty Category – First Place: “Reaching Out” Las Flores Middle School Filmmakers: Anna Nguyen, Sophia Li, Orion Bentley Advisor: Roxanne Smathers
Suicide Prevention Category First Place: “That’s What Friends Are For” Woodbridge High School Filmmakers: Marleen Juarez, Pauline Nguyen and Mahi Thakkar Advisor: Megan Humphreys
Mental Health Category First Place: “Sensory Overload” University High School Filmmakers: Moses Fleischman, Alex Lu, Harrison Roberts-Dahlgren Advisor: Hali Kessler
Second Place: “Always There” Irvine High School / iTV Filmmakers: Bryant Saban, Brianna Ramirez, Maryam Jalali
Through the Lens of Culture Category Second Place: “I See You” La Quinta High School Creative Writing Filmmakers: Jenny Nguyen, Kevin Le, Jeslyn Le, Ruby Chau, Jessica Truong Advisor: Amanda LaPera
Animated Short Category Fifth Place: “Their Room” University High School Filmmaker: Moses Fleischman Advisor: Hanna Adessi
Walk in Our Shoes — What is Mental Health Category First Place: “Reaching Out” Las Flores Middle School Filmmakers: Anna Nguyen, Sophia Li, Orion Bentley Advisor: Roxanne Smathers
Walk in Our Shoes — Words Matter Category Second Place: “Remember” Las Flores Middle School Filmmakers: Alex Kaushek, Isabella Hernandez Advisor: Roxanne Smathers
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression, anxiety or suicidal ideation, here are a few free resources available to help:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 1-800-273-8255 is a 24-hour, toll-free, confidential suicide prevention hotline that’s available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. It provides Spanish-speaking counselors, as well as options for deaf and hard of hearing individuals.
OC WarmLine. Available 24/7, the OC WarmLine is a free and confidential telephone service providing emotional support and resources to Orange County residents. Call 714-991-6412 or visit namioc.org/oc-warmline for more information.
National Parent Helpline. This hotline provides emotional support and empowerment strategies to strengthen families. Call 1-855-4A PARENT(1-855-427-2736) 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays.
2-1-1 OC. This service connects Orange County’s most vulnerable residents with vital health and human service resources. Call 888-600-4357 or visit www.211oc.org.