I Am Still Your Child is a blunt documentary that vividly portrays the fragility of the human mind. With glimpses into the lives of three people of varying ages who grew up in households fraught with mental illness, the film does not shy away from the truth of one simple fact; mental illness is not easy, and it affects a great number of people, especially children. As quoted in the film, children with parents who are struggling with mental illness are 30-50% more likely to develop mental illness themselves. In Canada alone, there are over 500 000 kids living with suffering parents, many of them under the age of 12. Too young to fully comprehend that something is wrong, and that they are not at fault.

Though this documentary, which was directed by Megan Durnford (Just A Lawn, Une brique à la fois), does not soften the harsh reality of mental illness, it does shed some light on the resilience children can learn through their experiences. Sarah, whose father has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, has found some ways to cope; music, friends, and praying. Jessy has found refuge in art after watching her mother shift into a deep mental illness. Von, a self-taught comic artist, drew and wrote a graphic novel detailing his experiences with his mother, who suffered from severe schizophrenia. All three of these individuals learned strength from their difficult childhoods.

Overall, I Am Still Your Child is a powerful exploration of the very real world of mental illness in a family setting. Below is an interview with the film’s director, Megan Durnford.

  • Before you began directing documentaries, you wrote for newspapers, multimedia projects, and penned non-fiction books. What prompted you to foray into documentaries?

Oh, well, that was an easy transfer, because I have enjoyed watching documentaries pretty much my entire life. Ten years before I began working on documentaries, I would go every year to the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto. At some point I went, “well, clearly this is something I’m drawn to.” My husband suggested I make the leap from watching to making them. It’s not pure journalism, which is what I really like about it; it’s journalism mixed with art. The skills I already had I just had to move over to documentaries.

  • I Am Still Your Child is a powerful film that does not shy away from the harsh reality of mental illness, yet it still manages to show a silver lining in Sarah, Jessy, and Von’s lives; their learned resilience. Did this surprise you?

You know what’s interesting, the people in the film are people who agreed to be in the film, and people I chose to be in the film because they are very articulate and moving. When I think back to the research I did, I met kids in quite a range of ages with quite a range of experiences. Good outcomes is not always the case; sometimes they can’t break out of their different issues associated with growing up with a mentally ill parent. Some cases, spend the rest of their lives living with the repercussions. So I guess you could say, when I started looking at all the different situations out there, I wanted to focus on and find subjects who did look resilient and that they would make it into a healthy, happy adulthood. The thing is, such a case doesn’t just happen by chance. For instance, Jessy says at one point, “my father is a rock.” If she is going to come out the other end, it’s because one of her parents is present 100%. And she says, “that’s part of the reason I can feel optimistic about the future.” Another reason, another thing that’s really important, is she has found ways to express herself, and that is definitely another piece of the puzzle. She sought out psychological help, but also she just wanted to be open and share what she is feeling, which is a huge part of the reason she is doing so well.

  • What went through your mind when you first met Sarah, Jessy, and Von?

Well, let’s see. When I first met Jessy, I could sense immediately that this was someone who was very articulate and someone who was willing to share everything 100%, which I found astonishing. When I met Sarah, I sensed this was someone who was quite shy, but her parents were very keen on sharing the story. So I realized if her parents wanted to share the family’s experience, then they would help convince Sarah to be part of this. She is the youngest one in the documentary, she was fifteen when I met her. So her parents’ agreement had a huge impact. The more time I spent with Sarah directly, the more she developed and the less shy she became, and she opened up and answered all kinds of questions.

And then when I met Von, it was interesting. I was looking for an adult, because I wanted to talk with someone who had lived through it and was more removed from it, because they would have a different way to express their experiences. I also wanted to meet an adult who was living an adult life still involved in the topic. In his case, of course, it was his graphic novel. When I met him, I immediately thought well, okay, this is good. Because he is 100% interested in participating in this project, and his graphic novel’s illustrations were wonderful additions to the film, as it is obviously very visual. It added a richer element to the film.

  • Filming their interviews and learning about their experiences must have been quite emotional. Did you have any coping mechanisms for the more intense moments?

Well, I interviewed them many times in many different situations. It’s funny, I don’t remember requiring any personal help – I didn’t learn everything all at once. As I got to know them, I learned more parts of their story. Although I do remember the first time I met Sarah, I was really surprised by the nonchalant way that she told me some of the things that had happened in her house, as if it were ordinary life, and of course it wasn’t ordinary. I remember driving on the highway and thinking, “I probably shouldn’t be driving right now, I’m not really concentrating on the road. I’m so shocked still by what Sarah said.” I think a lot of people would find the way Sarah said things so shocking, the fact that for her, this situation is not shocking.

  • Did the documentary turn out the way you originally wanted it to?

Yes. I would say, honestly, I am very pleased with it. It’s thanks to the incredible cinematography by Alex Margineanu, the incredible editing by Howard Goldberg, the wonderful music by Alain Auger. Of course film is always collaborative, but it turned out even better than I imagined, because everyone working on it added to it, in their own way.

  • What is the main thought you want audience members to have after they watch the film?

The first thing is to be just aware of this situation. Everybody in Canada does know some child growing up in this situation. Every time I mentioned what this film was about to someone, they would always say, “oh yes, I remember that situation from my childhood, or my child at school knows someone…” so this film brings awareness that this is happening. Secondly, it’s important for kids living in this situation to know that they are not alone. Those who live outside of the city, it is quite possible they feel very alone, because most of the resources available to the kids are in the city, and, quite frankly, there aren’t very many resources to begin with. People need to be aware that this situation is happening, and there are potential life long repercussions. Various people like teachers will hopefully realise that maybe it would be good to put a little pressure on local governments to increase the funding for the resources, because even overall society would be better off if we can help children when they are young.

  • What do you think people should begin doing to really spread awareness about this very real problem?

Well, the first thing people could do is share the link to the film, and the website, because the website has a lot of information on it. Another thing, that is very key, is right now there is someone working with Catbird who is organising community screenings across Canada! So, if there is a group, whether it is a church group, or a neighbourhood group, or any kind of group, that wants to have a screening in a particular setting, they can literally contact Catbird and they will help make it happen. We want as many people to see it as possible. For instance, there is a conference in Toronto for mental health, and they are screening the film. Community screening is quite broad, from casual to conferences.

  • Anything you want to add?

There has been a lot of campaigning to remove the stigma around mental health, and that’s great. The people who are mentally ill can have more focus on improving their lives in many different ways. There is very little attention on the children who have parents who are suffering. As said in the film, around 60% of mentally ill individuals are parents. And so then, that is a very, very large group of invisible people who need helpful attention.

What’s interesting, is each situation is different. It depends on many things, such as which illness, as there are so many, how old the child is when the illness starts. There are cases where it is throughout their whole life, and then other cases it isn’t. I met many people who have said, “oh, everything was fine, and then when I was 14, my mother sank into depression, went to bed, and never got up.” Of course, that would have a completely different impact, if it happens when you are a teenager. It somehow almost makes it harder, because then you can still remember when things were better. Also, it depends on siblings, if they have any, how many they have, if they have a parent who is still present and what role they play, there are so many different factors; you can’t really generalise how it is. One of the most common elements is the feeling of alienation, of feeling apart. No matter what the situation is at home, kids at school most likely don’t share it with their friends. Not because of teasing, but because they think their friends won’t understand what they are talking about, so they feel alone. And that’s something is very common.

If you enjoyed this interview and wish to watch I Am Still Your Child, click here to be directed to the film’s page on CBC TV.