“Anxious Nation” / Publicity photo

‘Anxious Nation’ Looks at Anxiety in Young People, Atlanta Film Festival Returns with LGBTQ Fare

The numbers are staggering. The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey of almost 34,000 LGBTQ young people aged 13 to 24 in the U.S., with almost half being youth of color and nonbinary or transgender, has indicated that thoughts of suicide are on the rise the last three years. The new documentary “Anxious Nation” looks at the issues of anxiety and mental health and the effect it has on adolescents and those identifying as LGBTQ.

The film is directed by Academy Award winner Vanessa Roth and co-directed by New York Times bestselling author Laura Morton. It came about because Morton is the mother of an anxious teenager. One day back in 2018 she was feeling defeated as a parent and her daughter’s anxiety was getting worse. She put a post on Facebook: “Kids and anxiety — who is dealing with it?” She was surprised at the response she received.

“It was the private messages I received that really rocked my world,” Morton told Georgia Voice. “It was as if that one line on Facebook gave people permission for people to talk about something we were not talking about [then]. As a storyteller by trade, I thought there was something here. I was really curious about what was going on and why. I wanted to know if we were more anxious or just more aware of it?”

Roth, too, has experience with anxiety in her children and their friends and the subject hit home. The two began making the film the following year and the COVID-19 pandemic “poured gasoline on that burning inferno.”

During the pandemic, it seemed like everyone was dealing with increased anxiety. The two wanted diversity in their subjects as well as geographic diversity in looking at how anxiety had come up in them. They also wanted to explore the LGBTQ angle. In the film, one subject — Karl Palenkas, is not out to his father because his father had already rejected him.

Both Morton and Roth agree that there is a stigma against mental illness.

“There is a history of it policy-wise, in the way that we treat anyone with a mental health issue at all,” Roth said. “It’s been politically and policy-wise put into this category of ‘other.’ In families, there is a feeling of ‘just buck up and get over it.’ As humans, we don’t handle things we are afraid of well.”

She also added that resources have never really been available to handle mental health issues.

Morton noted the irony of how society criminalizes mental health in this country.

“If you are walking down the street and have a heart attack [people] will call an ambulance,” she said. “If you have a psychotic break, you are getting arrested and going to jail. That is happening in our country in 2023.”

The high level of anxiety in LGBTQ youth is very troubling to the filmmakers.

“In my opinion, I think there is still a stigma attached in this country to being openly gay, and I think we are moving in the wrong direction,” Morton said. “When you compound that with not being able to live authentically who you are, that absolutely plays a factor in how we feel about ourselves and that all circles back to anxiety.”

With so much growing anger and dissention against the LGBTQ community, , as well as increased bullying, many factors contribute to anxiety in LGBTQ youth.

“How can that not make you anxious?” Morton asked. “I think it’s true for other communities but especially the LGBTQ community That is why we are seeing these staggering numbers. Rates of suicide are exponentially higher.”

After a special world premiere livestream screening and conversation on May 3 hosted by Joan Lunden, the documentary debuts a few days later.

One of the largest film festivals in the city, the Atlanta Film Festival kicks off this week with some LGBTQ offerings. Alexandria Bombach’s “It’s Only Life After All” is a look at Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, also known as the Indigo Girls. It’s a comprehensive, easy-to-watch documentary examining the local duo’s professional and personal lives as out musicians. Ira Sachs’ “Passages” is a look at Tomas, a German filmmaker played by Franz Rogowski, married to husband Martin (Ben Whishaw). Their lives get complicated when Tomas begins an affair with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos of “Blue is the Warmest Color”). It’s well-acted, even if the characters are distant and a little unpleasant. “Gabi: Between Ages 8 and 13” is a Swedish documentary about the titular character over five years, battling stereotypes about what it means to be a boy or girl. The festival also features an encore Atlanta screening of the stirring “Kokomo City,” about Black trans sex workers in New York and Atlanta.

Also in the mix are several LGBTQ short films.

“Anxious Nation” has a world premiere online screening and conversation May 3 and is available in theaters and on anxiousnation.com May 5

The Atlanta Film Festival runs April 20–30 at various Atlanta venues