Laura Braider, who oversees the Behavioral Health College Partnership at...

Laura Braider, who oversees the Behavioral Health College Partnership at Zucker Hillside Hospital, wanted to show "there is so much hope for these young people." Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

A group of college students sits in a sun-drenched room, giggling over a card game. In a courtyard, others play a makeshift game of volleyball without a net.

These scenes, typical of any university campus, are taking place at an inpatient psychiatric unit specifically designed for students struggling with mental health issues.

It is the focus of a new HBO documentary, “One South,” which premieres Tuesday. Filmmakers Alexandra Shiva and Lindsey Megrue spent eight weeks inside the unit at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, part of Long Island Jewish Medical Center, speaking with patients, psychologists and other staff members to examine the mental health crisis among young adults.

One young man talks about how he went to the George Washington Bridge for the first time and stood there for two hours while he contemplated jumping. A young woman tells her psychologist she overdosed on pills not to kill herself, but to get an apology from her father after an argument. An international student, despondent her grades have dropped, is in a spiral of anxiety and shame after being reminded by her mother how her actions could upset the family.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • A new HBO documentary focuses on a psychiatric unit for college students at Zucker Hillside Hospital, which is part of Long Island Jewish Medical Center.

  • The number of young adults struggling with mental health issues has grown significantly in recent years.

  • Filmmakers and staff hope the documentary will bring a greater understanding of inpatient treatment and how there is hope for these young patients.

“I think explaining the theme of journeys to health and highlighting how there is so much hope for these young people and being able to show that to a large population is so important,” Laura Braider, a clinical psychologist and assistant vice president of college mental health at Northwell Health who oversees the Behavioral Health College Partnership program, said in an interview. She decided with other health system officials to let cameras inside.

The filmmakers, she said, “did a really good job showing the beauty of them learning together and helping each other.”

The Behavioral Health College Partnership program started as a pilot in 2009 and now involves over 95 colleges throughout New York. Students are referred through health and counseling offices and providers, and their absence from school is reported as a medical leave. Most stay between seven and 10 days to stabilize themselves and then create a post-acute care program to give them support after leaving the hospital. The 22-bed unit draws from Long Island and the region.

Viewers see the camaraderie develop between some of the patients; individual and group therapy sessions; and behind-the-scenes work involving nurses, social workers, custodians and security, as well as behavioral health specialists.

Shiva said while she and Megrue had taken on other projects focused on mental health, inpatient treatment — in which patients live at the hospital for a certain period of time — was a topic that had not been widely explored.

“People don't really understand what happens and what that process is like,” she said. “We found this program and thought that they did such an incredible job that we wanted to really embed in this and find a way to tell this story and hopefully demystify what inpatient treatment is so that people are more comfortable seeking help if they really need it.”

Megrue noted that inpatient care is “the least understood and most stigmatized” part of mental health treatments.

“We’re reading so much about the mental health crisis among young people,” she said. “Alex and I are both moms … I was curious to understand this better so I could be prepared as a parent.”

Patients could request the cameras be turned off during therapy sessions, yet many did not stop them even during difficult moments. When a patient has an outburst, the cameras are kept away but capture staff rushing to their aid. Their screams echo through the halls and the thick glass.

Braider praised Shiva and Megrue for being meticulous and sensitive with their filming. And she said the patients had an easier time around the cameras than some of the staff.

“This generation of college students is much more comfortable in front of a camera than other generations,” she said. “And these kids really wanted to let people know there was a place like this where you could get better, you could feel better and you could learn.”

Braider said she hopes viewers come away with a better understanding and empathy for the young patients and staff.

“There can be people in their darkest moments and they can go on to lead really happy, healthy lives,” she said. “People always ask me, ‘How aren't you depressed doing the job you're doing?’ And I say, ‘No, because I get to see people getting better all the time.’”

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