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How a Documentary About Mental Health Is Helping Teens Find “Meaning in Madness”

Mackenzie, Photo: Courtesy of Straight Up Impact

Mackenzie, a 17-year-old high school senior who says she feels overwhelmed by the pressures of high school and preparing for college, has had moments when she “thought suicide was a way out.”

Two of her classmates died by suicide and now the teen is advocating for students, especially those in crisis. She says many of her peers feel the same emotions, yet no one is talking about it. She wants her peers to know their feelings are heard, and they’re not alone. 

Mackenzie’s story is featured in a new documentary “Meaning in Madness,” produced by Straight Up Impact. The film looks at teen stress and mental health through Mackenzie’s point of view. 

“I wanted to ignite a conversation with this sense of urgency and this was a medium to amplify that conversation,” said the teen, who was initially hesitant to share her story. “This is an amazing opportunity for me to continue advocating for mental wellness and stress management, and I don’t think I would be able to really call myself an advocate if I hadn’t taken this opportunity.”

Cycle of suffering

Mackenzie was homeschooled until middle school. That’s when the pressure started mounting. She describes “jamming myself into this cookie-cutter vision” of what she thought a perfect student should be. She calls it a “cycle of suffering.”

“It became this cycle of wake up, study, test, school, study, sleep,” she said, noting that she didn’t allow herself to take a break or be a kid. 

The producers of “Meaning in Madness” met with many high school students when preparing for their documentary.

“We spoke to a lot of kids, and it was very eye-opening and really sad how so many of them felt the same, and are really struggling with anxiety, depression,” said Kate Cohen, one of those producers. “Most of the children that we have spoken to had already had suicide attempts.”

An epidemic

Youth suicide rates have increased significantly in the past decade. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates increased by almost 60 percent between 2007 and 2018 for people ages 10 to 24.

Cohen and her fellow producers selected Mackenzie to share her story because the teen had such a powerful presence.

“She was able to articulate her feelings and she had such a sense of understanding, and could see exactly what was going on and had a sense of what could change it,” Cohen said.

In the film’s early scenes, Mackenzie describes her depression as quiet and solitary, explaining she feels like she’s drowning. Her anxiety feels like loud TV static that she can’t tune out. She says her public school environment feels competitive and overwhelming. She worries about sacrificing too much and losing herself in the experience.

Through the film and self-work, Mackenzie has made significant changes. She’s decided not to let stress dominate her life, she adjusted her mindset to be resilient, she became more forgiving of herself, and she started focusing on the big picture, which helps her be more compassionate and empathetic. 

“My journey was more solitary and more isolated than it had needed to be,” she said. “And once I acknowledged that and identified that problem, I learned to develop the skills to seek and provide assistance for others.”


Mackenzie will graduate in a few months. Reflecting on school, she says it should be a meaning-based system, rather than a performance-based one. Both she and the film’s producers wish teachers, parents, and communities would offer and talk about alternative options to college. 

”Too many young people are going to college because they feel like they have no other choice,” said Pam Roy, a producer on the documentary who is working on a collaboration that will allow young people to pursue youth-driven, adult-supported, real-world learning through community-based mentorships. ”College is not right for everyone. Instead of encouraging young people to take out massive amounts of student debt, we should be helping them find and nurture their innate talents and passions.”

But while the producers want to get parents and children to think differently about education, their focus is on providing more options, not tearing down the traditional system.    

“We’re not trying to change the school system,” Cohen said. “It’s more about giving additional resources and finding other alternatives so it’s not a one-size-fits-all system.”

Teachers and students need more support.

“The system can better support our teachers, so our teachers can better support our students, and then education can be tailored to individuals and be more specialized and in-depth for each student,” Mackenzie said.

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