A Summer in the Cage is my feature-length documentary chronicling my friend Sam's battle with manic-depressive illness, also known as bipolar disorder (a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in a person's mood, energy, and ability to function). Sam and I started out making a film together about street basketball before Sam had any kind of mental health diagnosis. Early into the filming of the street basketball film, Sam had his first manic episode. Months later, we sat down and decided to make a film about Sam as a portrait of someone who could successfully manage his bipolar disorder. Unfortunately, that's not how A Summer in the Cage turned out as Sam continues to struggle with the illness today -- seven years after our decision to make the film about his disease. Having just completed the film, I hope it will help people understand the reality and complexity of the disease that effects millions of American families while provoking further public discourse about mental health issues.
Sam is funny, artistic, thoughtful, and clever. But, he also has a mood disorder, sometimes severe. It is not what solely defines him, but it is a challenging burden that he will carry for the rest of his life. I witnessed first hand Sam's massive, nearly suicidal, depressions as well as his raving, often-terrifying, manias. I saw him at times unwilling or unable to get out of bed, stay on his medications, go to therapy, or get a job. I also saw Sam grieve for the "normal" life he once had and took for granted. Luckily, I also witnessed his family and friends compassionately supporting Sam through it all. When you are in the trenches with someone with a mental health disease, it is not always easy to feel compassion. You often want them to deal with the problems themselves. I eventually learned though that it is imperative for people living with this disease to have the support and understanding of the people around them as they fight to reclaim a new sustainable and self-sufficient life with the disease. Broadening the understanding and compassion beyond just the immediate caregivers should be the goal going forward.
While my experiences filming Sam as he lived with a mental illness were incredibly intimate and unique, the disorder itself is unfortunately not unique at all. The National Institute of Mental Health has found that 26.2 percent of Americans over age 18 suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. One in seventeen suffer what is classified as a severe mental disorder (most commonly bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or schizo-affective disorder). These illnesses do not discriminate and are evenly distributed across all gender, race and class lines. The chances are that we all know someone who falls into one of the categories above -- but most of us are a part of the healthy group of Americans whose responsibility it is to help care for the mentally ill.
It is not simply their problem to deal with and get educated about being bipolar. It is our collective duty to help people battle these illnesses. Beyond reaching out to those around us, it is also critical to create more advocacy to support the research and outreach work of many national and local organizations dedicated to helping people with mental illnesses (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Depression and Related Affective Disorders Association, Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance, Child & Adolescent Bipolar Foundation, Fountain House, amongst others). I saw Sam benefit greatly from a support group he attended at UCLA while he was living in Los Angeles. We must also encourage our politicians to allocate federal and state funds for programs that will support research, outreach de-stigmatization campaigns, psycho-education, and further explorations of the best medical treatments. Hopefully, the different politicians views on aid for the mentally ill will be considered of vital importance in the up coming election season.
Sam is currently living in California near his mom and sister, fighting everyday to manage his bipolar disorder. Manic episodes and large-scale depressions continue to plague his daily life. These continued struggles make me realize that though the film is completed, the real collective work of helping people like Sam has just begun. To find out more about the film and ways to help people with bipolar disorder, go to www.cagethemovie.com.