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Filmmaker Eric Christiansen: “Change starts in the heart; We need society to rise up and tell their mental health stories”

Change starts in the heart. We need society to rise up and tell their mental health stories. We need artists to express those stories in ways that grab at our emotional heartstrings. The more mental health journeys we can share, the greater awareness and empathy it brings society as a whole.

As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview filmmaker Eric Christiansen. Eric Christiansen is an acclaimed documentarian who has built his brand around socially responsible filmmaking that educates, inspires and heals. A seven-time Southwestern Region Emmy ® Award recipient, he has the ability to identify an issue within a specific population and have it resonate with a general audience through compelling storytelling. The New York Times has called his work, “strikingly photographed” and “…sure to give comfort and support to countless veterans and their families.” Christiansen’s last film, Searching for Home: Coming Back from War has aired more than 2,300 times on PBS stations across the country. As a trauma survivor himself, having lost his home in the Santa Barbara Painted Cave fire disaster, he uniquely understands trauma, the resilience of the human spirit, and how important HOPE is to the healing journey. Christiansen’s acclaimed films (Faces in the Fire, Homecoming: A Vietnam Vets Journey, Searching for Home: Coming Back from War) have migrated from the entertainment arena into clinical environments at top mental health institutions to help the recovery process for thousands of people whose lives have been compromised mentally, spiritually and physically by trauma. By spotlighting survivors and their journeys, Christiansen has unified audiences around the power of HOPE, and continues to educate the general population about the complexities of trauma. Christiansen’s work has been seen on major networks including Discovery, TLC, PBS and MTV. He has also produced an IMAX film.

Thank you so much for joining us Eric! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

It’s been 29 years since I lost all my worldly possessions in the Painted Cave wildfire. To be exact, it was June 27, 1990. I call that my “ground zero.”

​The fire was savage, starting in foothills of Santa Barbara, and, by the time it was over two days later, it had destroyed 450 homes and a human life in its wake. Seemingly a disaster that I would never recover from, the fire turned out to be one of the greatest gifts I could ever receive.

​At the time, however, I wasn’t quite feeling so blessed. I turned to drugs and alcohol to bury my sorrows and mask my pain. Finally, I sought help, and through divine and human intervention, I became clean and sober.

I had been making films for as long as I can remember, working on the commercial side of content production. Through my personal experience surviving the fire and finding my sobriety, I rose from the ashes and realized I had a whole other connection to people who had been through similar traumatic situations. I could relate to them, and they opened up to me with their stories of survival. I decided then that this was my calling. I would make films chronicling recovery from trauma beginning with a documentary about the fire that had wiped the slate clean for me. I wrote and directed Faces in the Fire and won my first Emmy. Then the National Institute for Mental Health began using it to debrief survivors of natural disasters. My film was helping people! I had found my calling.

Since then I’ve made three more films through my production company ECP focused on how trauma impacts survivors, their families, and communities. A Vietnam Vets Journey; Searching for Home: Coming Back from War; and now unMASKing HOPE.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

Two factors: 1) We live in an “instant gratification” oriented world. 2) As a society, we have a profound lack of empathy. (Not necessarily in this order.)

1) We live in a fast-paced, instant gratification oriented society. Complex ideas, thoughts and emotions have been compressed into handy sound bites. We have become fairly incapable of assimilating large chunks of information and constructing our own complex thoughts, feelings and opinions. We are at the mercy of Facebook and our rapid-fire newsfeed to shape our perception of reality. The result of this is desensitization toward important issues and sadly, individuals. In my work I hear, “Why don’t those veterans just get over it?” or “ It’s been 18 years since 9/11, they should be fine!” and “That homeless guy could just get a job if he really wanted to.” This compresses an individual’s life journey into one judgment. It is much easier to throw a statement like this out then to take the time, and quite often the pain, to truly delve into the grey areas and fashion a truly personal heartfelt response. We don’t want the discomfort, and we don’t want to take the time to understand complicated societal, political and human issues that allow us to honestly address a person’s misfortune or life situation.

2) Tolerance and acceptance brought on by empathy will help us move forward in eliminating the stigma of mental health. I believe we are in an “empathy” crisis in the U.S. We have a total Inability or unwillingness to put ourselves in the “other guy’s shoes” much less share or understand another’s pain. As a whole, we are becoming increasingly self-centric, driven by factors like social media and advertising, and our value system has been skewed by greater access to images of wealth. We seem to be in a “spiritual crisis,” believing that a “thing” can fix us, solve our problem and produce happiness. We also feel entitled to those same material accouterments, chasing the next “shiny thing” that will make us happy. It’s no wonder that our emotional life takes a toll.

But I find when people do take the time to slow down to experience another’s plight — art is quite good at this — our hearts open a bit, and we gain an understanding of another’s world. We sometimes need to put ourselves second. Listen to others and ask questions (believe me I speak from experience). “What are you feeling?” “What is important to you?” Getting off the treadmill and walking with them on their journey has long-lasting benefits for us! We begin to EMPATHIZE, and feel their struggle. This kind of jumpstarts our internal dialogue and we begin the path of acceptance and tolerance.

Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?

For the last 28 years, I have created films chronicling trauma and grief recovery. My work is designed to enrich the human spirit with powerful storytelling that connects us all through hope and changes the world for the better with empathy.

Supported by clinical research and used as a tool by top mental health institutions, my films educate and create awareness around the complex and myriad issues of trauma, with the intention of shedding light on the hardships of disparate individuals struggling after trauma. By unifying audiences around their journeys of healing and the universal need for all of us to find hope, I inspire audiences to empathize with others who have been stigmatized by trauma, by connecting with their souls and spirits.

Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?

My story began 29 years ago when my home burned to the ground and my life changed from material to spiritual. With each project my story continues and my resolve grows greater. With each individual I meet, and with each life I see that’s been changed through my work, my resolve to continue only strengthens.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

a. Individuals — Empathy and awareness at the individual level are key. We have to take the time to educate ourselves on the issues around us that impact our society, such as mental health issues. Awareness creates a space inside us where we don’t react with knee-jerk judgment calls. Instead, we are able to develop more thoughtful narratives that reflect on others’ life situations. I have found that the next phase after developing empathy being of service to others in some capacity and helping their situation. And once you put yourself in someone else’s “shoes,” you become even more understanding and tolerant because it becomes about finding ways we relate to each other, not differ.

  1. Change starts in the heart. We need society to rise up and tell their mental health stories. We need artists to express those stories in ways that grab at our emotional heartstrings. The more mental health journeys we can share, the greater awareness and empathy it brings society as a whole.
  2. There are some amazing “grassroots” level organizations affecting change in the U.S. Many of these organizations are run by, or have been started by the very people they serve! These are individuals who have been through trauma but have found a path to healing. Quite often this vocation becomes the very source of their personal healing and they develop a strong mission to share their healing with others. Government should take a stand to support mental health in our country by providing better funding for these grassroots organizations or developing innovative think tanks that can delve into the complexities of mental health issues. Then we will have a stronger platform to develop new policies and programs that can contribute meaningful and long-lasting solutions.

What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

  • Spiritual practice
  • Spirituality is key for me. My faith continues to inspire and drive me. I believe that God has given me certain “gifts” to enable me to help others. The best example is losing my home in the Painted Cave wildfire disaster all those years ago. That event changed me so profoundly, it set me on a course to help others. I literally and spiritually rose from the ashes of that fire to do the work I do today, allowing me to have a voice as one of your Mental Health Champions!
  • Asking for Help
  • For me, the act of opening myself up to ask another human being for help begins the process of recovery or change. I had to ask for help in my recovery over alcohol and drugs. To this day, I cannot do this alone.
  • Finding “like” individuals
  • A Vietnam veteran in my film, “Homecoming: A Vietnam Vets Journey” said the sweetest two words I have ever heard: “I understand.” Only people who have “been there” truly know what you feel. That fellowship, that understanding, reminds you: “I am okay, I am not alone, I am not crazy.” Seek those people out and allow them into your lives.
  • Having a mentor/spiritual guide
  • In order to be an effective dad, husband, friend, and co-worker I need someone who can be there to help guide me. I rely on my mentor to provide me with a realistic and clear assessment of myself. As another male role model, I can run things by him, be transparent and embrace the direction he gives me to make the necessary course corrections. In order for a mentor to be effective, you have to truly listen and be willing to take their direction.
  • Helping others/Being of service
  • My main purpose in life is to help others. I have been allowed to come out the other side of a traumatic event a stronger more compassionate human being who can use my skills as a filmmaker to help those who are struggling. Here is the spiritual paradox of this; by helping others, I help myself! I “get out of myself” and my soul is fed in a way nothing else can.
  • Taking care of yourself
  • Basically, this one is all of the above! Taking care of yourself emotionally and physically allows you to care for your family and the people who need you.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

I read a lot of recovery-based literature. I also have a few “daily meditations/reflections” stylebooks I begin my day with. Recently, the “War of Art” by Steven Pressfield has inspired me by addressing fear, self-doubt, procrastination, perfectionism… all the forms of self-sabotage. It has been significant in helping me overcome my subconscious resistance to get to the “next level” of my work and continue my calling.

I like this quote:

“The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.” -–Steven Pressfield

I also see a lot of independent films. I love films that give me a real sense of place and person. I think it helps me exercise my empathy!

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.



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