One day Mary arrived at high school early and got a phone call from her friend Annie, who said she loved her and had called to say goodbye. Then Annie hung up.
Everything Mary had recently learned came flooding back: She located the school psychologist, who called 9-1-1, jumped in her car and drove to Annie's house. When she arrived, the paramedics were there. Annie was in and out of consciousness but they were able to determine what she had taken and stabilize her.
Their teachers credit Mary with saving Annie's life, as well as the Directing Change film project, which had drummed into Mary: When a friend says scary stuff, tell a trusted adult.
Research shows that 60%-80% of young people tell a friend when they are thinking about suicide, but fewer than 25% of those friends seek help, according to Directing Change. So it holds a statewide video contest each spring for teens that focuses on suicide prevention and mental health.
"This project mainly is to help young adults learn more about the warning signs of suicide," said Alamo resident Chia-Chia Chien, founder of Culture to Culture, a nonprofit organization that promotes mental health within the Asian-American community. "Reaching out and seeking help at an early stage can reduce feelings of being alone."
Contest participants learn about suicide prevention, mental health and how to support a friend, while using their creativity and technical skills to produce 30-second and 60-second videos that can be used as public service announcements.
"In making the film, they need to talk about it," Chien noted. "We want students to learn when to be alarmed and how to offer a helping hand. This project strongly believes that suicide is preventable and through a helping hand, it can be reduced."
The University of Chicago did a study of participants in the California contest and found that 86% had learned the proper response to a friend's suicide warning, and 56% had encouraged someone going through a tough time to seek help.
The Culture to Culture Foundation began partnering four years ago with San Diego-based Directing Change, and has been instrumental in targeting teens from different cultures.
"Cultural factors have a lot to do with how people feel, think and act," Chien said. "All people working in the mental health field need to know to be more familiar with cultural backgrounds when helping people with mental illness."
"Every family has its own different culture," she explained. "When they suffer from depression or mental illness, their family background might have something to do with it."
Suicide in general crosses cultures, Chien said, but in many cases parents are unaware of problems, do not know how to find help, or resources might be limited.
"Delay in treatment can cause a crisis," she said.
Chien also noted that suicide carries a stigma, "And the stigma can be reduced."
The video contest categories include Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Matters. In another category, Through the Lens of Culture, films can be made in the students' native language with English subtitles.
"We want students to look at mental health through their own cultural perspectives," Chien said. "For example, Asian high school students are under a lot of stress, from peers, parents, society."
Chien has been on a mission throughout the Bay Area to inform educators about the video contest and was pleased that local students have been among the winners.
In last year's contest, Tia Stout from San Ramon Valley High School won first place in her region with her film, "A Mormon Perspective." Claire McNerney from Foothill High earned second place with her animated film, "Reach Out."
Regional winners receive expenses-paid trips to the awards ceremony in Southern California, a gala that includes red-carpet treatment and Oscars-style announcements of the state winners, with awards up to $1,000. The event is also a chance for the teens to meet professionals in the industries of film production, music and social justice.
The Directing Change Program & Film Contest is funded by the 2004 Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act, which mandates an additional 1% tax on incomes of $1 million or more for programs.
Since the statewide program began in 2012, it has had 9,000 teens participate, submitting 6,142 films. The films have been viewed online more than 325,000 times.
Videos for this year's contest are due March 1. For more information on the contest and to view winning films from past contests, go to www.directingchangeca.org. To learn more about the organization, visit www.directingchange.org.
Film contest categories
* Suicide Prevention
* Mental Health Matters
* Through the Lens of Culture
* SanaMente (30-second film in Spanish)
* Animated Short
* Walk in Our Shoes (for middle school students)