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Web series aims to destigmatize mental health issues

Charmin yawns as Dave Cowardin (left) and Joe Olivieri work on their laptops recently. The two are producing episodes of a Web series aimed at destigmatizing mental illness. (Steve Kuchera / / 2
Joe Olivieri of Duluth edits the sound for an episode of “Call Me Mental.” An average of 2,000 people have viewed each of the first four episodes, which addressed suicide among college students, the crushing depression of a beauty queen and the post-traumatic relief in quilting found by an abuse survivor. (Steve Kuchera / / 2

“I know that mental illness in the United States is pretty taboo — especially with men,” said one male University of Minnesota Duluth student who appeared in an episode of the Web series “Call Me Mental.” “There’s this big emphasis placed on masculinity and toughing it out. … I don’t think that’s fair.”

Joe Olivieri and Dave Cowardin didn’t feel like they could blow the lid off anything as purely documentary filmmakers.

During their first effort, the Duluth duo’s “Roots of Rescue,” they left out half of their sources from a 53-minute endeavor on animal cruelty in the South.

“That’s 24 stories untold,” Cowardin lamented.

So for their current effort, they retrofit their storytelling to the Internet for the website, where their Web series, “Call Me Mental,” and its equally riveting outtakes are telling stories at a rapid rate.

An average of 2,000 people have viewed each of the first four episodes, which addressed suicide among college students, the crushing depression of a beauty queen and the post-traumatic relief in quilting found by an abuse survivor.  

There are other stories, too — told audibly, in podcast form. All the stories end positively, so as to give the viewer or listener who might be searching for answers themselves something to cling to in the examples of others.   

“We want to give hope,” Cowardin said, “to show there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

If funding is a guide, Olivieri and Cowardin, operating under the business name LoLa Visuals, own a burgeoning hit in “Call Me Mental.” Last week, the Miller-Dwan Foundation gifted $10,000 for the “online episodic video project,” while the St. Luke’s Foundation pitched in $6,000 to “destigmatize mental illness and share stories of hope and recovery.” The Human Development Center is the fiscal agent for “Call Me Mental,” meaning that it accepts donations for the project among other things, including supplying all the video equipment.  

“It is our honor to partner and collaborate on such an essential initiative, one that impacts all of our lives and the collective health of our community and country,” said Catherine Carter-Huber, spokeswoman for the St. Luke’s Foundation.

Olivieri, 27, calls himself both a journalist and artist in equal measure. He’s laid-back with floppy hair, sort of the foil to the short-coifed, conscientious Cowardin, 25. As such, Olivieri is keen to corporate insincerity. He knows when someone is pandering to him, or worse, trying to form his message for him. He doesn’t feel that way with HDC.

“They believe in us no matter how young or naïve we are; they believe in the project,” he said. “They weren’t so concerned with us being politically correct.”

“They’re not editors or dictators,” Cowardin said. “They trust our judgment.”

Judging by the existing episodes — all between 5 and 12 minutes in length — the filmmakers own a deft touch. They bring raw, but heartfelt, stories to life with expert shots. The Miss Minneapolis-as-depression-sufferer episode gives viewers a powerful glimpse at a young leader finding her voice. The podcast of the person with obsessive compulsive disorder is an education in 3½ minutes.  

The name of the series alone was enough to turn off one potential backer, who bristled at the supposed insensitivity of the word “mental” in the title. In fact, the duo had more than a few rejections before the series drew traction in the mental health community. Throughout, the creators were insistent the word “mental” remain in the title.

“It should not be taboo,” Olivieri said of the word. “We all have mental health.”

“The series started out as ‘Going Mental,’ but it changed to ‘Call Me Mental,’ ” Cowardin said.

“Their vision and HDC’s community education mission aligned perfectly,” said Dr. Carolyn Phelps, HDC’s director of outpatient therapy who, as clinical adviser to the project, provides an essay in response to each “Call Me Mental” episode – bringing a clinical lens to the project that the creators appreciate.

“She’s someone we knew we needed,” Cowardin said.  

Phelps and HDC’s credibility gives Olivieri and Cowardin clout, and clout means the access necessary to create pieces Phelps calls, “real people telling their stories of living with mental illness.”

Considering the topic matter, the more stories the better. Mental illness manifests itself in so many ways across roughly one-quarter of the population, and it’s important to tell a wide spectrum of stories if the goal is to reach as many people in need of inspiration as possible.

“The whole idea is no story should go untold,” Cowardin said.

So far they’ve told stories from the Dakotas, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Duluth, the Twin Cities and they’re looking at a guy in Denver who has fought suicidal depression since he was 7 years old — a glimpse, Olivieri says, with the potential to give pause to previous notions about the nature of suicide.  

Their crusade includes turning the camera onto one of the creator’s own stories: Olivieri lives with seizures and has for most of his life, save for a three3-year respite he credits to the use of medicinal marijuana.  

“Five or six weeks ago, now, I had a seizure and went into an unexplainable state of depression afterward,” he said. “Then it was a constant state of anxiety. … I’m seeing a psychologist.”  

The duo is editing their fifth and sixth of 12 proposed episodes. They say it’s hard to put a limit on where “Call Me Mental” could go from there. With continued support, they’re in it to tell as many stories as possible.

“When they’re told about physical illness, people are sympathetic,” Olivieri said. “But talk about someone with crippling anxiety and people get awkward.”

Fortunately, not everyone — as growing involvement suggests.  

“I’m very happy to see two major health care organizations in this area come together to join HDC in supporting this project,” Phelps said.

With health care heavyweights lining up to support them, Olivieri looked to Cowardin during their interview and reflected on their humble beginnings:  

“It was a pretty gutsy proposal from a couple dudes who meet in a coffee shop to work,” he said.