By C.J. Hirschfield
California has spent $13 billion in the last three years to tackle a massive homelessness problem made worse by the pandemic, yet its approach is fragmented and incomplete, the state auditor said in a report released this month. Homeless people suffering from mental illness– who make up over 40 percent of the people on the streets in Los Angeles alone– were not mentioned at all in the report’s summary.
So it is particularly timely that a new documentary has chosen to not only tackle the subject of America’s mental health crisis, but to use the intimate stories of doctors, patients and families to illustrate the pain and helplessness—and now activism– that follows in the wake of decades of disastrous governmental decisions that stand in the way of access to quality mental healthcare.
“We can’t fix something we can’t face,” says psychiatrist and documentarian Dr. Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, describing why he made the new feature-length film Bedlam, an extremely powerful and thoughtful indictment of a broken system that is made worse by the silence and shame with which serious mental illness is regarded.
Rosenberg speaks from experience—his sister Merle suffered from schizophrenia, and his family’s journey was a painful one. “My family’s tragedy is an American tragedy,” he says.
One in five adults – over 40 million Americans – lives with a mental illness, and today most people with serious mental illness like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or severe depression cycle through a revolving door of tragically insufficient care, the film informs us.
The film’s title comes from the name of one of the oldest and most notorious mental institutions in the world, opened in London in 1403. The film very effectively uses historical footage to carefully put in context the decisions at the federal, state and local levels that have brought us to where we are today—at a place where the severely mentally ill are overrunning psychiatric emergency rooms, being warehoused in jails, and living on the streets. “The greatest social crisis of the 21st century,” is how the situation is aptly described.
Filmed over five years in Los Angeles, home of one of America’s busiest psych ERs, Bedlam follows the stories of Monte, Todd, Johanna and Delilah, each of whom suffers from mental illness—and the family members that love and try to help them. There are triumphs, as well as setbacks.
A focus is also put on the dedicated ER doctors whose lives are often endangered by the role society has given them, with a workload that one dedicated physician describes as “not manageable.”
The journey of Monte’s sister Patrisse Cullors adds an important dimension to the film: hope. Inspired by her experience with her brother, she is now an articulate leader in the civil rights movement to prevent mass incarceration and reroute money for jails into mental health diversion programs and community resources, and to treat mental illness like any other illness.
In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, we observe citizens in L.A. advocating for mental health services, and not the building of a new jail. Their personal stories are heartbreaking and real—and they won.
Bedlam takes on a hugely important and complex issue, and succeeds in making it personal, and authentic.
The film premiered in 2019 at the Sundance Film Festival to a standing ovation. It was well-deserved.
Bedlam is streaming now on PBS- Watch it here https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/bedlam/
Website: www.bedlamfilm.com with resources, stills and much more
DR. KENNETH PAUL ROSENBERG wrote, produced and director BEDLAM. He has been making award-winning documentaries since medical school. While a medical student at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, he also studied film at NYU. He co-produced and co-directed (with Ruth Neuwald Falcon) AN ALZHEIMER’S STORY, a film about living with Alzheimer’s Disease, filmed over the course of eighteen months. Ajer his residency in Psychiatry at the Payne-Whitney Clinic at New York Presbyterian Hospital, he did a Fellowship in Public Health, during which he directed and produced THROUGH MADNESS, a film on serious mental illness, for PBS. While a practicing psychiatrist and faculty member at Cornell Medical Center, Ken produced and directed films for HBO, including WHY AM I GAY?: STORIES OF COMING OUT IN AMERICA (Oscar Documentary Feature Shortlist), BACK FROM MADNESS, and DRINKING APART, and executive produced CANCER: EVOLUTION TO REVOLUTION (Peabody Award-winner). He is also the editor of medical textbooks and author of popular books including BEDLAM which was published by Avery/Penguin Random House. Rosenberg MD is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medical College and New York Presbyterian Hospital while leading the team at Upper East Health.
A panel discussion from the Jewish Film Institute. Moderated by celebrated filmmaker/media activist Judith Helfand, and featuring mental health advocate and former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, Susan Ehrlich, MD, MPP, CEO, Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, BEDLAM director Ken Rosenberg, and producer Peter Miller.
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”