In 17 days, Mark and Eric Norwine walked 200 miles across Missouri. They hope that the documentary about that trek will help change how people talk about mental health.
"Walking Man," which premieres tonight at the St. Louis International Film Festival, follows Mark Norwine, bullying prevention project coordinator at Chads Coalition, and his son Eric as they walk across the state, talking to students and government officials about mental health and suicide. News of three suicides at St. Clair High School within a seven week time span, as well as their own history with mental health issues, prompted the walk.
“I had experienced a lot of mental health issues from probably the age of 18 until I was finally diagnosed at age 52 with bipolar disorder,” Mark Norwine told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Monday. Mark Norwine also said he had attempted suicide twice. “My actual thought was to walk across the state and help communities like St. Clair that don’t have the resources like we have in St. Louis and Kansas City.”
“Going into it, I had one rule with (director) Josh (Salzberg), and that was I’m not going to talk about my story,” Eric Norwine said. “I was diagnosed with bipolar when I was 16 and was very fortunate — I was medicated within six months and I’ve been on medicine ever since.
“Our first day I was thinking, you know, we’re asking all of these people to share their stories and open up about mental health. I’d be a hypocrite to capture these people and try to push them to start this conversation if I wasn’t willing to do it myself. So then I found myself on the news announcing to the St. Louis metropolitan area that I was bipolar.”
The Norwines intentionally stopped at several small towns during their 17-day trip.
“I think our rural areas have three to five times the suicide rates of areas like Kansas City or Springfield or St. Louis — the areas that have a lot of resources,” Mark Norwine said. “We have 75 counties in Missouri that do not have a licensed psychiatrist in the county. That’s two-thirds. It’s staggering.”
After 15 days, the duo (and a film crew) arrived at St. Clair High School.
“We’re speaking to the students in an assembly and it did not go well,” Mark Norwine said. “They did not want to hear what we had to say and the principal did not want me to talk about anything of any substance,” including the recent suicides.
“We kind of came out of there going, ‘Wow. We just walked for 15 days, still have two more and we don’t know what we have’ as far as what we’re going to be able to do to help people and also what this documentary might look like. It ended up being probably the most important part of the documentary.”
The St. Clair stop forced the Norwines to look at the issues a little deeper.
“We kind of came out of St. Clair once the dust had settled and said this isn’t anybody’s fault,” Eric Norwine said. “There are a lot of folks who don’t want to talk about it, and people that don’t have the resources. If you think about it, what’s the point of talking about something if you can’t afford to do anything about it?”
Director Josh Salzberg, who has been friends with Eric Norwine for several years, said the trip changed his outlook on mental illness.
“The issue for me is about normalizing,” Salzberg said. “Eighty-five percent of people have a chemical imbalance — the unusual thing is to have everything OK. If we can normalize it and say ‘Hey, this is something that a lot of people are going through. You’re not the strange one if you’re having these issues.’ ”
To do that, the Norwines said better research and simple conversations are needed.
“The more we research and the better our treatments are, the more it becomes more normalized,” Mark Norwine said. “I think right now so many people are on medications and those medications are really hard for them to even work, to get through life. It’s not like we’ve found the things that are really going to be our treatments of the future.”
“It seems cliché, but it’s just as simple as starting a conversation,” Eric Norwine said. “If at the very least people walk away from the film and ask their parents ‘Hey, is there any sort of bipolar or mental illness issues in our family?’ That’s an important question. All we’re really asking people, in terms of normalizing this, is to understand that this is a part of life.
“It’s not a weakness to get help. It’s strength,” he said. “It’s like telling someone with a broken leg to run. We’ve just got to tell our kids that they don’t have to run with a broken leg. We’ll help them get better.”
"Walking Man" premiere at the St. Louis International Film Festival
- When: 5 p.m. Monday, Nov. 17, 2014
- Where: Tivoli Theatre, 6350 Delmar Blvd., St. Louis
- More information
- When: 10 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014
- Where: St. Charles Stadium 18 Cine, 1830 S. First Capitol Drive, St. Charles
- More information
“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.