Fear factors

Friends Select School Wellness Program and IndieFlix's 'Angst: Raising Awareness Around Anxiety'

3 minute read
In the film, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps helps a little boy overcome his fear. (Photo courtesy of IndieFlix.)
In the film, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps helps a little boy overcome his fear. (Photo courtesy of IndieFlix.)

As the parent of two Friends Select graduates and mom-in-law of another, I looked forward to the school’s screening of the documentary Angst: Raising Awareness Around Anxiety. Part of the Friends Select Wellness Program — now in its third year — this initiative is led by school psychologists Dr. Molly Patterson and Dr. Natan Gottesman to engage the school and the public in discussion and awareness about wellness issues. ​

The 56-minute documentary was produced and distributed by IndieFlix and directed by Matt Skerritt. Their goal is to reach more than three million people around the world, starting with 25,000 community and school screenings, all of which include post-film discussions.

Everyone involved in the film’s development has personal experience with anxiety. In the words of IndieFlix CEO Scilla Andreen, “So many people struggle with anxiety and have trouble talking about it. We want to change that.”

Freezing out anxiety

Did the film meet the challenge of fostering discussion? Without question. It brought honesty, information, and noteworthy interventions (for example: if you’re suffering from obsessive thoughts, put an ice cube in each hand and watch those thoughts melt away).

Explanations of brain functioning and mind-body connection are included, and the film emphasizes the importance of parents listening to their children so those children may share feelings without shame. I loved that “contact, connection, and communication” (what I refer to as the three C’s) are underscored again and again.

Angst also highlights parental and societal pressures on our young, robbing them of childhood joys. When one of the professionals in the film noted the stress an elementary-school child felt about getting into college, I recalled a recent advertisement for an approach to motivate scholarship in kindergarten.

Students don't have to remain trapped by their anxieties. (Image by Kathryn via Creative Commons/Flickr.)
Students don't have to remain trapped by their anxieties. (Image by Kathryn via Creative Commons/Flickr.)

Children of varying ages openly describe their pressures and emotional and physical symptoms of anxiety. An especially moving scene shows Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps paying a surprise visit to a boy of about 10 or 11 whose anxieties had overwhelmed his sense of well-being.

Phelps speaks candidly about his own suicidal thoughts and how treatment helped him reclaim his life. One can practically see the tension dissipate from the earnest and delightful little boy as he listens to Phelps.

The post-Angst discussion was facilitated by Gottesman, with psychiatrist Dr. Manely Ghaffari and psychologist Dr. Deborah Ledley. Ghaffari noted that there is an essential difference between the desire for pain to end and planning to die.

Ledley called attention to the lack of ongoing mental-health services at many colleges. She suggested that students who require mental-health services connect with a private practitioner near their college right after high-school graduation.

Missing pieces

Attendees pointed out that the film lacks emphasis on preventive measures and effective psychiatric treatment. I was frustrated by its lack of clarity on the many types of anxiety disorders. And although areas of normal anxiety are noted, the importance of anxiety as a motivating force deserves concentration, as does a fuller understanding of anxiety as a warning when one moves toward dangerous overload, meriting self-care strategies.

While the school's atmosphere was warm and welcoming (with a free supper, to boot), and the discussion was useful in clarifying some of these issues, I wished they were addressed in the film. Also, like several others, I wanted the discussion to last longer.

One word of caution: In addition to the documentary, as “supplemental learning,” the IndieFlix Foundation offers a virtual-reality component which “allows users to experience a panic attack firsthand, further building awareness and empathy.” This component was not shown at Friends Select. Due to the risks involved, I do not recommend it.

What, When, Where

Angst: Raising Awareness around Anxiety. Written by Scilla Andreen, directed by Matt Skerritt. October 2, 2018, at the Friends Select School, 1651 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. For more information about Friends Select's Wellness Program, including events that are open to the public, visit friends-select.org/wellness.

For more information about the film, and finding or hosting a screening, visit angstmovie.com.

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