MORAGA -- All across the state of California, Directing Change is asking teenagers to zoom in on suicide and ostracism.

It's not the "It's spring!" message one might expect this time of year, but rather a public service announcement video contest aimed at promoting mental health awareness. With the National Institute of Mental Health reporting in 2009 that suicide was the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24, building bridges isn't just admirable, it's vital.

"Human understanding is the most effective weapon against suicide," said Dr. Edwin Schneidman, founding president of the American Association of Suicidology, on Directing Change's website.

Dividing California into 11 regions, Directing Change invites all high-school-age student filmmakers throughout the state to create and submit videos in an initiative administered by the California Mental Health Services Authority. Funded by the Mental Health Services Act (Prop 63), the $1,000 to $500 cash awards to winning teams and matching-amount prizes to their schools are an incentive for -- and an investment in -- improving teens' mental health wellness.

At Moraga's Campolindo High School, Cameron Sun and Kyle Merryman, two 17-year old seniors, show their 60-second PSA.

"What if we told you there are people just like you?" the screen reads, following a rapid montage of teenage faces. "People with mental disorders are just like you. Sometimes they need help. Just like you."

The message, addressing the "Eliminating Stigma" category in the competition (there also is a "Suicide Prevention" category), took about one month to complete. The script was developed collaboratively, a process both students enjoyed.

"We didn't really have any arguments," says Merryman, the more vocal member of the team. "Alone, we can get lost in an idea. But bouncing ideas off each other, we kind of land somewhere."

"Yeah, what he said," Sun agrees.

Merryman says his filmmaking background until taking on this project has been comedic. The suicide prevention PSA was "a too-touchy subject" and the category's extensive, cautionary guidelines too worrisome.

Indeed, the "rules" section of the project guidelines is intimidating: The PSA should not portray suicide as inexplicable or frequent; not be insensitive to racial, religious, sexual orientation or gender; not be negative, dark, or even subdued; and not include the words "commit" or "completed."

The competition isn't simply an opportunity for cinematic flair: it's a lesson in responsibility. Following copyright laws, recognizing warning signs of someone at risk, and providing information about crisis and support resources expands participants' understanding and compassion.

Justin Seligman, Campolindo's video production teacher and the adult supervisor required by Directing Change for all entries, says he has avoided contests that deal with serious themes. He says students haven't been interested.

"These two are intellectual young men who wanted to rise to the challenge," he says. "We've done diversity videos that have sparked a discussion with teachers in individual classrooms. That was influential."

Mourning the cuts that have reduced counseling staff at many schools, Seligman says close connections are hard to form when case loads are hundreds of kids.

"As a community, we have to watch out for students who are in social, emotional danger," he says.

Using a Canon EOS Rebel T2i to shoot, Final Cut Pro 6 for editing and Gemendo for the minimalist, copyright-free piano accompaniment that filters in the background of their PSA, their first attempt was 40 seconds too long.

"With the time limit, it makes you realize you can't tell the story in the conventional sense," Merryman says. "You can only do a collage of the general idea."

"Everything had to be compact," says Sun.

They say ostracism at Campo is often directed at students with "mild autism" and that "out-and-out teasing" happens, but that being left out is more common. They are a bit more closed about their own experiences. Merryman says he was physically bullied in elementary school, but high school is "more open-minded." Sun says, "I've had to deal with being different. I've learned to accept it."

Still, the message Sun hopes to send is proactive: "Treat people with mental disabilities as they deserve to be treated -- as equals."

And Merryman believes teens generally have "more pure creativity" than their elders, so a student-generated PSA is "emotionally appealing" and "will make the audience relate and feel connected to someone with mental illness."

This year, 207 "Intent to Direct" forms were submitted. Judges include mental health/suicide prevention experts, community members, news media, county behavioral health agencies representatives, filmmakers, actors, and educators.

Winners of the regional contests will be announced early April. Three state winners will celebrate at an award ceremony at Sacramento's Crest Theatre on May 23.

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