Makoura College student Seni-Isaia Iasona. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Young filmmaker takes on mental health
Documentary to shed light on youth mental health concerns

Erin Kavanagh-Hall

It’s never an easy topic to broach – but, whether it’s over the airwaves or behind a video camera, Seni-Isaia Iasona is determined to continue the conversation on youth mental health.

Seni, a Year 13 student at Makoura College, has started filming Student Issues, a video documentary series in which Wairarapa teens share their struggles with anxiety and depression, gender identity, sexuality, ethnic prejudice, interpersonal relationships, and maintaining a positive self-image in the age of social media.

The first episode, published on Facebook, focuses on student well-being, and features three of his classmates discussing their experience of mental illness.

The video, which has generated thousands of views, also explores the weight of adults’ expectations on young people, particularly the pressures within the education system.

This is not the first time Seni has raised the issue of mental health with the community.

Last year, he hosted a 24-hour radio marathon on East FM, Makoura’s radio station, featuring discussions with students, staff, local leaders, and politicians, and raising funds for the Mental Health Foundation.

He is also one of a group of secondary students working with the Wairarapa District Health Board, alongside health services and community groups, to help design a new suicide prevention plan.

Seni hoped his documentary series would shine a light on some of the battles young Kiwis faced.

“A lot of young people feel like adults aren’t willing to have a conversation with them about their mental health,” Seni said.

“They feel like adults aren’t listening to them – and, if they are, they’re listening to answer back, to judge them and tell them to suck it up.

“The documentary gives people a chance to listen in to the conversations teenagers are having with each other, and hopefully, be more understanding.

“If we want to end the stigma around mental health, we have to keep having these conversations.”

Seni, an aspiring broadcast journalist who does weekly work experience with Newshub in Wellington, has long been a fan of documentary films – particularly those by eccentric New Zealand journalist David Farrier.

After receiving an arts scholarship donated by New Zealand comic band Flight of the Conchords, and buying himself a camera, Seni decided it was time to embark on his own project.

“I wanted to do it independently, rather than as a school assignment,” he said.

“I didn’t want to do anything that was overly scripted, or that told the audience how to feel or how to think.”

He emailed his classmates with his idea and got an enthusiastic response.

In the end, he filmed Makoura students Lily Lewis, Chloe Mount, and Charlotte Pullman, who spoke candidly about their struggles with anxiety and depression – exacerbated by the pressure to pass their NCEA credits, meet assignment deadlines, and balance extracurricular commitments.

In her interview, Lily said she often had friends ringing her in tears, saying “school has been getting way too much”.

Charlotte said stress at home was also a factor, which could be further inflamed by school pressures: “things are getting drilled into their heads, when they already have so much going on”.

Wendy Hemi, guidance counsellor at Makoura, and school nurse Karen Jamieson also shared their insights.

Wendy, who has worked with many students struggling with self-harm and suicidal thoughts, said the causes of mental ill health problems for teenagers were many; not only school, but poverty and economic insecurity, traumatic home lives, and difficulties in their friendship groups.

While both she and Karen agreed there needed to be more funding for mental health education in schools, they believed the regular routine of school could be a positive force.

“It’s a place for young people to spend time together and feel comfortable if things aren’t going well outside of school,” Karen said.

“In class time, they know where they’re at, and have boundaries to stick to.

“Our kids are still turning up; even when they have so much going on in their heads, they’re turning up to school.”

Seni, inspired by “heaps of positive feedback” he had received so far, uses the free software iMovie to edit his footage, looks forward to starting on the next episode of Student Issues.

“I’m thinking of doing something on sexuality and ethnicity – I don’t just want to cater to the straight white kids.”

The first episode of Student Issues is available publicly on Facebook, on Seni’s personal page: Seni Iasona.

If you have any ideas for future documentaries, you can contact him on seniiasona@icloud.com