Co-Director of OF TWO MINDS and THE S WORD, Lisa Klein discusses the growing need for policy changes and social support for people dealing with mental health challenges including bipolar disorder and suicidal ideation

Co-Director of OF TWO MINDS and THE S WORD, Lisa Klein discusses the growing need for policy changes and social support for people dealing with mental health challenges including bipolar disorder and suicidal ideation
In her first film OF TWO MINDS, Klein and her husband and co-director, Doug Blush address the ways in which individuals have successfully dealt with bipolar disorder, even in their lowest moments. In THE S WORD, they dig deeper into suicide and prevention. Interview conducted by Celeste Kirby.
To start, can you tell us a little bit about  OF TWO MINDS?

OF TWO MINDS puts a human face on people living with bipolar disorder. They are people with jobs, lives, and relationships. You see the struggles too for sure, but it really is about humanity. We all have something we’re dealing with.

What inspired you to share the stories of individuals living with bipolar disorder? 

When I was growing up, my sister, who was eleven years older than me, was my hero – the funniest, smartest person I knew. Yes, she had a big personality, but that was who she was. Later, when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, we had zero idea what that even meant. At first, I mostly saw the ups. She was my big sister, who I loved, and who had a huge personality. Then, we started seeing the other side. The depression. Our family worked very hard to navigate and support.

When I went to film school and started writing narrative pieces, my sister’s story was always in the back of my mind. In 2008, I was reading a story in the New York Times about this woman Liz Spikol, who's featured in OF TWO MINDS. She seemed pretty funny. Her story was really compelling, so I contacted her. It took her a while to get back to me because when you’re in the New York Times everybody contacts you. Suddenly, you’re like a celebrity for a few minutes. When she did get back to me, we agreed to meet and see what happens. It kind of went from there. I worked on this film with Doug Blush, my husband and co-director. 

At first, when people asked what we were working on and we said, "a project about bipolar"; we were usually met with "hmm..that sounds like fun." Eventually, the responses became, “You have to talk to my brother, my uncle, my sister...” Everybody knows somebody who’s dealing with this. Same thing with our other film, THE S WORD 

As we began filming OF TWO MINDS, we met Carlton at a National Alliance on Mental Illness convention. We were going to meet somebody else, and he happened to be there selling his book. I started thumbing through it and read about his addictions, cross-dressing, and incredible artwork. I said, “You sound like an interesting guy.” It just kind of spiralled from there. That was the
jumping-off point. The film was in the back of my mind, but reading the Spikol article and then meeting Carlton confirmed that it was time. I think we really need to do this and help get this in the spotlight as much as our little film can do. 

What moments stand out to you as particularly eye-opening in the process of making OF TWO MINDS?

I learned a lot. Liz, for example, reminded me of my sister in two ways: her intelligence and her wit. She was showing us her resume and on the back was her suicide note. Struggling with bipolar or suicidal thoughts is funny in and of itself, but people who are dealing with this are three-dimensional humans. They’re funny. You’ve got to eventually find the humor or find something in it that’s going to maintain your own sanity.

For me, what was so hard was the first year after my sister’s death. I lost my sense of humor. I lost so many things but talking to Liz and her mother and hearing their stories helped us explore the humor in the tragedy. For us, it was just working with these people, talking to these people, and just sort of seeing the three-dimensionality of all of them. When Cheri said, “Bipolar is a disease. I am not bipolar in the sense of- you wouldn’t say ‘I’m cancer.’ What you have, whether it’s cancer, diabetes, or bipolar disorder, isn’t you. It doesn’t make up the sum total of you.” It was really important to put that in perspective. 

What was it like to co-direct such a sensitive and intimate film with your husband?

It was super challenging. This was very mom and pop in a lot of ways, as opposed to 
THE S WORD, where we had a crew. With this film, Doug did the filming, and we alternated the directing duties. The best part was the trust – we were both so invested in this and had each other’s backs.

However, having said that, when we were in the editing room it was very different because this film was so personal to me. When he would cut something, there were times that I’d be like, “No, no, it didn’t happen that way.” There were definitely some tense moments, but it was really good to get the perspective of somebody who hadn’t been through this. It was good that it was co-directed because otherwise I would have had such tunnel vision. Eventually, when I wasn’t being close-minded and cranky, he was able to bring me out of myself and look at the big picture to see that this is a film that needs perspective; it needs to be compelling enough for people to watch a film that focuses on people living with bipolar disorder.

How did the process of filming OF TWO MINDS inspire you to create 

My brother and my father both died by suicide. There is a family in OF TWO MINDS who lost their daughter and sister to suicide. For a moment, I thought that after making OF TWO MINDSwe had dealt with suicide, but then I realized that is the tiniest, tiniest tip of the iceberg, and I needed to go a lot further with it.

I decided that my next film would focus on suicide. In a way, OF TWO MINDS was a stepping stone - thinking that I was done, and realizing I wasn’t when I really thought about it. Everybody who was in OF TWO MINDS had attempted or ideated about suicide. It seemed like it’s weird to say the logical next step, but it just seemed like this is where I needed to go. 

Since the creation OF TWO MINDS, how do you think the dialogue around mental illness has changed, if at all?

I feel it has. It’s weird because just like with anything, you’re dealing with semantics. With suicide, for example, we don’t say the word “commit” because it is so loaded. You commit rape; you commit adultery. To say somebody’s a mental patient or somebody’s crazy is something I don’t hear a lot. I am probably in a bubble. First of all, I live in California. Second of all, I’m in this world of suicide prevention and mental health, so there is a lot of sensitivity around that. But I feel like there has definitely been some growth. I just hope we get to the point of mental health parity because physical health and mental health are so intertwined. Mental health has taken a back seat for too long.

In the past couple of months, we have seen widespread calls for police reform. As I’m sure you know, individuals with mental illness are much more likely to be killed by the police than other suspects. Do you care to comment on the current state of policing and mental illness in the United States. 

Absolutely, I want to comment. You may remember in OF TWO MINDS when Carlton said “suicide by cop.” For him, what that meant was, I’ll go and I’ll just act out and maybe the cop will shoot me. We are absolutely asking policemen and women to do too much. They shouldn’t be first responders to a suicide call. You need somebody who’s trained to talk to people in distress. We need 
de-escalation, not excessive force or worse. 

While filming THE S WORD, we talked to somebody who had attempted suicide at home. The cops showed up and escorted her out in handcuffs. How does that serve anybody? We’re talking about somebody who’s suicidal and then is completely humiliated in front of her neighborhood. These are people who are not trained to deal with mental health but are often the first responders. We need social workers, therapists, people who are trained to listen to people who are struggling. We absolutely need complete police reform. I think cops should be taken off of anything to do with suicide and mental health. 

In your film, you document the struggles of accessing mental healthcare for individuals living with bipolar disorder. What changes, if any, do you think need to be made in our healthcare system to accommodate people with mental illnesses?

That is a huge question. People are afraid to go to the hospital because the hospital means humiliation, loss of rights, and all of that. In THE S WORD Kelechi Ubozoh said, “The one thing that I learned about being in a hospital is to never be in a hospital again.” When we first started research for THE S WORD, we were shocked to learn that in psychology class, they spend little or no time on suicide. It’s kind of like if you’re in medical school to be a cardiologist, and you don’t learn about heart attacks. It is something that you hope doesn’t happen, but it sure could, particularly if you’re a cardiologist. 

When you’re dealing with mental health and mental illness, a lot of it is experience and talking to people, but a lot of times it’s about just listening. It’s going to sound simple, and it’s never simple. You can say all of these things like: “if you eat quinoa you’re gonna be okay,” “if you run five miles a day you’re gonna be okay.” But if you listen to what this person is struggling with as a friend, as a co-worker, as a spouse, as anything-a lot is going to be gained. You have to build trust. Trust is the first thing. What I’ve learned over the years is that egos really do stand in the way. We’re all so different, but if you do a little bit your way, a little bit his way, a little bit her way and their way, maybe you’ll get somewhere. It really is about listening and finding out what the person wants and needs.

If you could share any message with the millions of people with bipolar disorder in the United States, what would that message be?

It is not a death sentence, at all. One thing Carl said in OF TWO MINDS was that “Being bipolar, it’s the rollercoaster ride of your life. Everything’s on full throttle. It’s like a race car, nothing can stop you, and then it dies.” I’m not trying to find the silver lining. Like Cheri says, “If I could take it away, I wouldn’t because I’ve seen things that no else has seen, I’ve seen things in a way that no one has seen. When I’m manic, the sky is bluer than it could ever possibly be.” Bipolar, isn’t going to go away, necessarily, so like with anything, how do you cope with it? It’s figuring out, how am I going to reign it in? What tools do I have in my toolbox? Is this a good time to write? Is it going to help me? If I know that I am going to be depressed, what’s going to work for me? Is it going to help to run? Is it going to help to eat kale? Is it going to help to take lithium? 

Unfortunately, with something like this, it is often about trial and error. If somebody says, “I’m bipolar, and what works for me is 50 jumping jacks a day, try that.” You can, but chances are you have to figure out what’s going to work for you. 

Just know that it is not the end. You reach a point where you just start to mitigate it however you can and figure out the best way to embrace the best parts of it. It’s so individual. I never want somebody to think, “I’m diagnosed with bipolar, so that’s it. Game over.” Because it’s not. 

How do you think your film can be used in a classroom setting? 

We’ve used it a lot in classroom settings, and it can be used in several ways. One, if somebody in the class is struggling, they may reach out and talk to somebody. If you’re in a psych class then it can be a learning tool to understand that these are human beings, so treat them with respect and dignity. 

In film class, hopefully you learn that you have to show the humanity, the humor, the art. All of the stuff that goes into it to be compelling enough that somebody is going to sit down for an hour and a half and actually watch it. 

My favorite thing is going to classrooms. There is something about showing the film to a group of students and have them be a part of the discussion and ask questions. I love that. there anything you would like to address that I haven’t asked you about?

Everybody in the film is doing okay, moving forward with their lives. I am happy to be in touch with several of them.