‘Little things make a huge difference’

As the national conversation around police reform has gained momentum, the general public is slowly being introduced to the massive shortcomings of the criminal justice system. The intent of the system has never truly been to rehabilitate, and that is no more acutely apparent than when incarceration intersects with folks struggling with mental illness. Filmmaker Margaret Byrne’s new documentary Any Given Day aims to shine a spotlight on this overlooked and vulnerable population. 

Produced by Beti Films, Any Given Day follows the story of three Chicagoans struggling to succeed despite mental health challenges. As the blunt instrument of the carceral system is used as an ineffective proxy for mental health care, their troubles are compounded. 

Byrne gives a short overview of the people at the center of the film—Angela, Daniel, and Dimitar, whom she observed over eight months—and shares a little bit about each of their journeys.

“Angela is a single mother of four children, two adult children and two minor children . . . Her journey is about getting custody of her son back while trying to manage life after being incarcerated.” Byrne muses, “I think that’s something me and Angela very much have in common as single moms—when you fall apart, everything else falls apart. You are essential to the well-being of other people. I think we learned that we have to take care of ourselves. And it’s a simple lesson, but it’s also a very difficult lesson, I think, for a lot of people.”

She continues, “Daniel was homeless for years. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in Cook County. He’s in his early 30s. And it was through the mental health court program that he got into a program that NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) runs called the Moving On Program, where you can move from a residential home into an independent apartment. And then the question is, are you getting the right services to be able to maintain your first apartment?”

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She goes on to describe the third person in the film. “Dimitar immigrated here from Bulgaria as a child. He also went to UIC and graduated with a degree from UIC in anthropology. It was the summer after his graduation that he had his first manic episode. He didn’t end up getting arrested until a couple years later, and that’s what led him to the mental health court. His mom, Gina, is really central to his stability, because she’s his caregiver. And so it’s also about the toll this takes on people that care for those that are struggling with their mental illness and are in crisis.”

Filming the story of any vulnerable population requires a level of sensitivity, and Byrne took care to try to respect their stories. Byrne reflects, “You know, there are definitely times where I’d show up with the camera and not film, because it just wasn’t a good time.” Garnering that level of intimate access took time and trust, leading Byrne closer; it blurred the traditional sharply defined line between filmmaker and subject. Byrne says, “I mean, I think, for me, personally, documentary filmmaking is all about building strong relationships, particularly if you are setting out to tell somebody’s story, and they’re in a vulnerable position. And, you know, we had a lot of conversations, we spent a lot of time together, in so many ways I became their advocate.”

That necessary closeness meant that Byrne was also forced to look inward at her own personal mental health struggles. During the course of the film, the subject matter triggered her own mental health crisis, and she had to decide whether or not to include herself in the story or not. Byrne shares, “It became relevant, you know. It really became about all of us, and my intention in telling their stories was to help destigmatize mental illness. And so I felt that if I didn’t include something of myself, and my own history of mental illness, that it wouldn’t be honest, and it wouldn’t be doing the work. I worked with a wonderful editor, Liz Kaar, who really helped to direct those parts of the film and make all that make sense.”

When asked how anyone can support those struggling with mental health, and how we can strengthen the fabric of our communities, Byrne says, “I think the film shows that little things make a huge difference, you know, just to pick up the phone for somebody, even though you’re tired—I’m going to show up for this person. And that’s a decision you have to make for yourself, but I think you just can’t look away from the things that are difficult and challenging, because that’s how people slip into crises. I think when you isolate, when you’re not in contact with other people—and I think that’s another lesson in the film is that being connected to other people really is important for everybody’s mental health.”

Though the film highlights the lack of resources for mental health, there are also some lifelines for those in crisis. In July the 988 health crisis number launched nationwide, a connection to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. When the number is dialed, instead of dialing the police, callers will be connected to trained mental health counselors at the NAMI chapter in Chicago. Additionally, NAMI offers a helpline for those seeking support and resources, including housing and legal help. NAMI can be reached at 833-626-4244.

Any Given Day will air on Thursday, September 8, at 7 PM on America Reframed on the WORLD channel. A free streaming window will be activated September 8-22 at worldchannel.org/episode/america-reframed-any-given-day/

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