By Maria Tsikalas, Editor, Saint Louis University School of Law
At the end of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote that “Love is expressed more in deeds than in words.” Every once in a while, the same can be said for student scholarship.
A few years ago, second-year Saint Louis University (SLU) School of Law student Alex Lindley did not anticipate becoming a mental health advocate. When one of his close friends took her own life in 2012, their freshman year of college, he and his friends did not know how to deal with the tragedy.
“To be quite frank, we didn’t grieve, we didn’t allow ourselves to delve in and talk about the stigma behind mental illness,” he said. “So we all kind of bottled it up. We all went through it, including my best friend, Ryan, who had been a dear friend of mine since we were 12 or 13 years old. We all grieved kind of to ourselves. And in 2014, he did the same thing and took his own life.”
Lindley says that after 2012, he tried to be hyper-vigilant in observing his friends’ behavior for warning signs and had not seen anything worrisome in Ryan.
“Ryan kind of personifies that mental illness doesn’t discriminate. He was the most popular kid I ever met. At his wake, [we were told] there’d never been anywhere near those numbers – thousands of people. Everybody loved Ryan, and he was battling anxiety behind the scenes. He had understood what it did to a group of friends and how hard it was for those left behind, yet he still couldn’t reach out. So that stigma associated with mental illness can be so strong.”
Reflecting on that stigma compelled Lindley to focus his attention on researching mental illness resources. Initially, he simply wanted a way to get through the grief, and tossed around the idea of making a documentary with Ryan as a central figure, both to keep his memory alive and combat the stigma surrounding mental illness. But it quickly evolved to become bigger than he had ever imagined.
In 2014, Lindley and his friends created an organization called Project Wake Up (which is now a federally recognized 501(c)(3)), and set up a GoFundMe page to fund the production of a documentary. They hit their initial goal of $10,000 within 20 hours, and funds still continued to pour in: to date, they have raised more than $200,000. Using connections, Lindley was able to collaborate with a film company in Los Angeles, hire a director and delve into the business of film-making. The documentary is scheduled for filming in November and December, with an anticipated release date of Spring 2018.
“For the sake of our director’s career, we are going to push it out to film festivals. We want to get as many eyes on it as we can,” he said. “But I’ve always seen it as a film that we want to [have shown] at colleges, universities, high schools [and during] orientation programs and mental health weeks. We want to make a film similar to Blackfish, which got people up in arms about killer whales. There are serious inadequacies killing humans, and if we can get people fired up about mental illness without having to experience a loss like we have, that's our goal."
Lindley plans for the video to feature prominent scientists, professors, legislators and awareness groups in addition to personal stories like Ryan’s. He is also seeking a politician to champion the cause and push for mental health legislature, which he says should be a bipartisan issue.
“There are so many hurdles in the way of a better mental health care system,” he said. “But we’re going to try our best to further chip away at them, as long as we keep making people realize it’s something anyone can go through, and [that] it’s more common than you think. [Mental illness] can be treated, and you can beat it if it’s treated properly.”
Project Wake Up is also planting seeds for post-documentary projects. The group started an organization during their undergraduate years at the University of Missouri - Columbia in which students receive response training certification to recognize warning signs and learn crisis intervention. They hope to install these chapters across the country. They’ve also decided to establish a scholarship in Ryan’s name for students in graduate school working to become psychologists, psychiatrists or social workers because, as Lindley says, there just aren’t enough.
“I have been incredibly interested in seeing how the risk of suicide is much higher for people in law school and medical school and how [huge a problem] alcoholism [can be],” he said. “I’ve experienced it. It’s a high-pressure, high-stress situation. In the legal profession as a whole, it’s something everyone should be open to discuss. There’s so much anxiety and stress that comes with this field of work.”
As far as SLU LAW goes, Lindley says the community has wholeheartedly embraced the project.
“I love the way this school supports me,” he said. “It’s close-knit. Professors will be understanding if something conflicts, giving extensions for papers if I have a fundraising event the weekend [that] something's due.” He especially appreciates Professor Sue McGraugh, who does pro bono work for mentally ill criminal defendants, and who always asks him about Project Wake Up after class.
Lindley also attributes his six years of Jesuit educational formation in high school [De Smet Jesuit High School in St. Louis, MO] and law school as making a big impact on him.
“Our [high school] motto was to be 'men for others.' And I certainly think the work we're doing is something to try to help and care for people and, in a creative way, try to make a difference.”
Lindley does not know how his research will tie into his legal career, but he is certain he’ll be working with Project Wake Up for the rest of his life. This summer, he plans to work strictly on Project Wake Up rather than interning at a firm, a decision he hopes he won’t regret. He simply views it as too important, as the group anticipates filming in November and December.
“We only have one shot at this. I just hope it’s all done before I have to study for the Bar.”
For more information on Project Wake Up, visit ProjectWakeUp.org.