By Sara Radin
“I don’t think I ever fully wanted to die,” Saniya, a student at Drexel University, shares while looking directly into a camera. “I think I wanted to escape.” Saniya is one of many young people at the center of Each and Every Day, a new film from MTV Documentary Films by acclaimed filmmaker Alexandra Shiva that explores the different experiences of students in high school and college navigating “the darker stuff” of life — the bad moments when taking one’s own life felt like the only way forward — and how they kept living.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, and in 2019, there were 47,511 deaths by suicide. Mental-illness stigma prevents many individuals from seeking help, yet talking about it is one of the key things that could help save lives. This thinking is at the heart of Each and Every Day.
“I really wanted to do a film that focused on prevention of suicide in young people,” Shiva tells MTV News. The filmmaker is interested in exploring identity through different lenses, with a focus on young people and coming-of-age stories that capture marginalized communities, feelings of belonging, and the creation of connections. Shiva previously directed the HBO doc How to Dance in Ohio about the prom experience of teenagers living with autism. She always makes a point to let her subjects speak for themselves.
Shiva designed this project, which airs on MTV at 9 p.m. today (February 16), to help young viewers understand what's going on within themselves through the vulnerability and storytelling of other people. This meant giving a diverse group of people a platform to share their stories, no matter how painful.
“I wanted to walk people through the experience of others where they have either attempted [suicide], or have come close to attempting but they are on the other side of that and they've done a lot of work,” Shiva says. She believed that sharing these narratives would allow young people to impart wisdom and worthwhile tools they’ve acquired through their difficult experiences. “I was so inspired by how honest and open they were about talking about mental health.”
That openness is at the heart of destigmatizing mental health conversations. “Talking about [suicide] shows people that they’re not alone, that having these convos helps teach other people how they can support one another, and how mental health is an individual experience,” says licensed clinical social worker Elizabeth Beecroft. “Although suicide might be common, people’s paths aren’t identical, and we have to face it in our own unique ways.”
It also helps viewers understand the need for mental health support. Beecroft hopes this film will encourage more people to implement new prevention services in programs in education, foster care, athletics, and beyond.
Accordingly, Each and Every Day centers on a dialogue between a group of young people who share their experiences with one another through a video-chat program, which was an adjustment made due to COVID-19. Text bubbles, iPhone and home interviews, and voiceovers are thrown in to give a clear, robust picture of each individual’s life, as well as photo montages showing their younger selves, families, and friends.
When it came to selecting participants, Shiva says her team cast a wide net. “It was really important that whoever we selected was someone who was in a safe enough space, safe enough place for themselves to be able to talk about this publicly and on-air on MTV,” she explains. “We were really careful in terms of the selection process, and a lot of the people that we ended up with are people who, with their attempt and their recovery, are working on spreading the message.” For example, a participant named Emma now works at a volunteer suicide prevention hotline, while a student named Abraham gives talks about his experience with clubs on campus.
The film aims to show that feelings of isolation and lack of community are universal, while also showcasing some people’s methods for taking better care of themselves. “It was very important for us that the subjects were all diverse and that there was a diverse kind of experience, so not everyone came from the same place in life,” Shiva says. This was done to ensure that more people saw themselves reflected in the stories of the participants and connected with their journeys.
“The stories were as varied as we could find,” she says. “And then, one of the things I thought was incredibly intense was the national reckoning with racial injustice this summer.” Due to this, Each and Every Day implements many stories involving the trauma and the physical and emotional toll of racism. “It made it clear that racism and inequality are also mental health issues.”
The shared perspective also extends to widespread mental-health challenges, as Shiva discovered that they’re actually common and don’t necessarily lead to attempts. “Almost everyone faces not necessarily suicidal thoughts, but mental-health challenges at some point in their lives. There's commonality around that."
Mental health impacts all of us. The film is raw, open, and honest, and it comes at a critical time when the pandemic is causing a rise in suicide rates among young people due to isolation and the fact that many of us are trapped with our thoughts. But finding the courage to talk about it can be for many people, as for the film's director, a scary task.
“There's a fear of touching the subject,” Shiva says. “With the help of these young participants, it was like, let's just talk about it, let's get this out. There's a way to get into this material and really be honest without overstimulating other people, and that's a fine balance, but it’s doable.”
Ultimately, Shiva hopes that the film resonates with anyone who's had or currently having thoughts of suicide, that they'll feel less alone and like there's hope. Building a life worth living is possible.
If you or someone you know is struggling with their emotional health, head to halfofus.com for ways to get help.