"If we can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health." - Fred Rogers
America is suffering a mental health crisis.
In 2021, reports of anxiety were up 3x. 53% of US adults and 68% of African Americans said that the pandemic had negatively affected their mental health.
Antidepressant use among white, middle-class Americans rose 23%. Incidents of binge drinking rose 21%.
So many of us are hurting. Many of our nervous systems are maladapted from trauma and chronic stressors – to say nothing of the collective trauma of pandemic isolation, loss, and grief.
The result is hypervigilance where the smallest of stimuli triggers an outsized response. From the Interstate to the grocery store to the US Capital, many are fighting. Most, though, are freezing, and coping with deep, existential, and physical pain by numbing it.
Together, these forces drive stark health outcomes. The compounding effects of trauma lead to five of the leading causes of death, including heart, liver and respiratory disease, cancer, and suicidality.
When filmmaker Benjamin Wagner was diagnosed with CPTSD in 2021, he suddenly saw trauma and its impact all around: in rising incidences of gun violence and hate crime, the increase in adolescent suicide rates, growth of antidepressant use and binge drinking, and a mental health crisis so urgent that it prompted a national hotline.
And so he decided, as "to look for the helpers,” the people who are healing the deeply anxious and uncertain communities around them.
In Friends & Neighbors, Wagner returns to his own developmental traumas to better understand their causes, context, and impact. He then interrogates his career to recognize how trauma, toxic workplaces, and oppressive thinking maladapt our nervous systems, contribute to shallow and complex lives, and drive unhealthy coping mechanisms and poor health outcomes.
And he, in the words of his hero, one-time neighbor, and the subject of his 2012 PBS documentary, Mister Rogers & Me, Fred Rogers, always encouraged him, “looks for the helpers” in post-pandemic America, the people who are working to make themselves and the communities around them whole by helping heal a deeply anxious and uncertain population.
People like friend, Anne Kubitsky, who's Look for the Good Project is bringing social-emotional wellness, resilience and hope to grammar schools across America.
People like neighbor, Sarah McBride, whose election as America’s first transgender state senator accelerated dignity, equality, and a level playing field for all.
People like friend, Michael Tyler, who channeled the traumas of troubled inner-city childhood into the Carl Sandburg Literary Award-winning children’s book, The Skin You Live In.
People like neighbor Logan Herring, whose purpose-built community development is combating decades of structural racism, wealth inequality and systemic neglect through affordable food, housing and health care.
And people like friend Kelli Rae Powell, whose music therapy brings relief and joy to terminally ill patients.
By sharing our stories and journeys, we make space for others to do the same, and provide roadmaps for healing, and strategies for healthier lives and communities.
Because, as Fred Rogers often said, when we "make the mentionable manageable,” we find a way forward together. And “when we look for the helpers, we know that there’s hope.”
The Friends & Neighbors Team
Writer, Producer & Director
Benjamin graduated from Syracuse University in 1993 with dual degrees in creative writing and journalism. Following a brief stint at an Upstate New York newspaper, he moved to New York City where he began writing for Rolling Stone. He started his MTV News career in 1996, interviewing acts like REM, U2, and Neil Young, and eventually rose to Senior Vice President. He spent seven years launching global journalism programs at Facebook, before launching his own consultancy, Essential Industries Inc., in 2021. Benjamin is also a performing singer/songwriter with 10+ independent albums.
Director of Photography, Editor & Director
Christofer has worked in broadcast media since receiving a B.S. in Journalism/Political Science from Marietta College in 1990. His 20 years of media production range from the Emmy-winning news magazine, “Broadcast New York” to ABC’s “Monday Night Football” to MTV News’ award-winning “Unfiltered.” Christofer came to New York in 1995 with Broadcast News Networks, spent 11 years with Sony Music Studios and is currently Senior Editor at Creative Group.