Kevin Earley tells his mental health story in Ken Burns documentary

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He was known as “Mike” in his father’s book about mental illness and the hell of a journey it was to access medical care in a dysfunctional system.

“Mike” was wrestled to the ground and tased.

“Mike” received encrypted messages from an Oliver Stone film.

“Mike” broke into someone’s house and took a bath.

“Mike” has “an incurable disease. He’ll never get better,” a doctor told Mike’s father, bestselling author (and former Washington Post reporter) Pete Earley.

He told the story of the devastating news in the documentary: “It’s unlikely he’ll ever be able to keep a job, he’ll ever get married, have kids. And there is a high probability that he will run into the police, be arrested and become homeless.”

But at the White House last week and on screens across America, he’s using his full name – Kevin Mike Earley. And he has a degree, a job and a fulfilling artistic life.

“If we say there’s no shame in having a mental illness,” said Kevin Earley, 43, “then how am I supposed to go around using my middle name?”

Earley is one of more than a dozen Americans profiled in the latest Ken Burns documentary Hiding in Plain Sight, a two-parter about the gripping mental health crisis sweeping our nation’s youth.

A 15-year-old New Yorker who overdosed in class opens up about her obsession with pills and spending three months in the wilderness as part of a recovery program. A Cute-faced 9-year-old opens up about his suicidal thoughts. A Montana family explains how hard it was making the 800-mile round trip to get their son to the psychiatric facility that had room for him.

An abridged version of the document was shown at the White House last week by First Lady Jill Biden, who invited the film’s subjects – most of them children – into the gilded screening room and acknowledged that their stories “are difficult to watch.” It is impossible not to be touched by the pain of these young people.”

She underscored the breakthrough we seem to be making as a society – that we need to treat mental illnesses, like a cast for a broken leg or antibiotics for a sore throat. “Mental health is health,” she said.

“But the solutions to address these challenges are not always clear-cut,” she said. “The path to treatment is rarely a straight line.”

And that is exactly where the next challenge lies – the key to success. Access.

There are mental health hotlines. Rapper Logic (a Gaithersburg guy who solves Rubik’s Cubes on stage – love him) had a hit that aimed to make the nationwide suicide hotline a catchy tune: “1-800-273-8255.”

But unless you’re a hardcore Logic fan, it might not be an easy number to remember. Therefore, as of July 16, the United States has a new emergency number for anyone experiencing a mental health crisis: 988.

It connects the caller with on-call professionals who can help avert a crisis and put someone on the path to getting real help.

However, it is only a start.

In Pete Earley’s Pulitzer Prize finalist, Crazy, the father explains how difficult it was getting his son somewhere safe and getting insurance to treat his bipolar diagnosis. “Mike” was in crisis, but until he proved a threat to himself or others, getting treatment wasn’t easy.

Another family in the film said they were told the quickest way to get help was to go to the emergency room. But there they had to wait another four months to find a doctor who would take them.

“Even if you’re a wealthy family like we were, it’s difficult,” Kevin Earley said.

He missed the White House event last week because he tested positive for the coronavirus. But he was negative in time to be with the rest of the crew when the film premiered to a live audience in Billings, Mont this week.

It’s the home of Kee Dunning, one of the film’s advisors, who invited everyone to the premiere. And it routinely has one of the highest per capita suicide rates in the country, alternating with Wyoming and Alaska, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Earley said he loved meeting the other subjects – all much younger than him – for the first time.

“They are so articulate and eloquent and able to clarify their experiences,” he said. “I was amazed at how wise they are beyond their years. I wish I had that.”

But it was a different world 20 years ago when Earley started experiencing bipolar episodes and the cops called his family and told them “he’s crazy.”

“At least it wasn’t like the ’50s where they just lobotomized us,” he said.

Two hours before the premiere, the group decided to get a tattoo to commemorate the event. They desperately looked for a shop in Billings to take on the rush job.

“Most of the others got the name of the second part of the documentary ‘Resilience,'” he said. “I have the name of the film.”

It’s the perfect message for Earley, now a Peer counselor working in Arlington: “Hiding in Plain Sight.” Kevin Earley tells his mental health story in Ken Burns documentary

Dustin Huang

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