About the Film
Why do we see so many severely mentally ill people on the street, often off treatment and nearly always alone? Physician and filmmaker Delaney Ruston, whose own father, Richard Ruston, has paranoid schizophrenia and at times lived on the street, takes viewers along on a deeply personal journey to reconnect with her estranged father. Can she make sense of the devastation that his illness has caused? Should she resume her childhood role of acting as her dad’s doctor, or is caring for him in that way hindering her from truly caring for him?
After years of feeling helpless when her father would come searching for her in psychotic states, Delaney finally decided to become unlisted in the phone book. But now, ten years later, Delaney, as a mother and doctor, feels a pull to reconnect with her father. As the film opens, we meet Richard, a poet and novelist, doing well on a new medicine. And while he is thinking clearer than Delaney has ever seen him, she realizes that her fears of her dad going off therapy trumps all else. What will happen if he goes off treatment? Will doors be closed as has happened in the past?
It’s these fears that propel Delaney to explore why it has been so difficult to get mental health treatment for her father, as well as for her patients. Delaney gains insights from others, including her local congressman and psychiatrist, Jim McDermott, who was a practicing psychiatrist in the 1960s when the policies that dictate our current mental health system were formed.
In the hopes of feeling closer to her dad, Delaney struggles to get to know his past and the way in which his illness has impacted their relationship. It is easy for Ruston to recall the shame that her father’s behaviors caused her, like when he would come yelling for her on her school campuses. But what was life like for her dad? Medical school taught her the science of his illness, not the experience of it. So Delaney turns to the novel her father wrote during the early years of his illness, when he was a graduate student at UC Berkeley. Animations of his novel paint a haunting picture of a mind aware that it was slowly disconnecting with the world around him.
Delaney begins to feel a new connection with her dad when, as is often the case with severe mental illness, things change suddenly. As Delaney feared, her dad stops taking his medicine, and then goes missing. What starts as an emotional tale of reconciliation turns into a frantic journey for survival. Ruston’s search for her father—combined with her search for answers as to why his care has proven so inadequate—provide both a dramatic story and a probing social commentary.
"Unlisted" is a soul-searching examination into the nature of responsibility and the transformative process of reconciliation. While this powerful film deals with a weighty subject, it is tinged throughout with humor and bewilderment that helps to dispel many of the old myths around mental illness. Audiences will be moved to reflect upon their own ideas of mental illness, compassion, and responsibility.
For years I felt conflicted about having disconnected from my father. I told myself that without my contact information my dad would no longer be tempted to come searching for me in a psychotic state, and I could avoid the pain of not being able to get him help. Five years ago I decided to stop hiding. Part of the catalyst for this decision was my growing need to tell my story; a story that while unique in its details is universal in its themes.
Severe mental illness tears families apart, but not for the reasons that make tabloid headlines. Yes, the symptoms of these illnesses can be devastating, but what really tears families apart is their inability to get treatment for their family member. The frustrations and heartache that comes from not being able to get care causes thousands of family members to disconnect. Over the years, the films I have seen about mental illness, have portrayed devoted caretakers, but I had a need to expose the other side of the story, family members who are themselves deeply conflicted by the realities of deciding not to care for an ill family member.
Not only was I propelled to give a new voice to family, but also to give a more typical picture of someone suffering from severe mental illness. The stories we hear in the media focus on a few famous individuals (Van Gogh or John Nash, for example) or a few notorious ones (the rare, but terrifying person shooting at strangers). My dad, on the other hand, represents the more common face of mental illness; a regular guy who wanted a career and a family, but was constantly stymied by his disordered thought process.
With "Unlisted" I wanted to give viewers a background on why getting mental health treatment is so difficult. My hope is that this knowledge will not only help viewers understand why so many people sit untreated on our streets, but why things do not have to stay this way. I hope that viewers will have a foundation from which to take action; be it simply taking a moment to validate the existence of someone living on the streets or working to create a more functional and compassionate mental health system.
Finally, my hope is that after seeing "Unlisted" viewers will be more motivated to discuss mental illness, for if it is not present in their own family, it certainly is present in a family of someone they know. Greater than any statistic, what most reminds us of the prevalence of mental illness, and the obstacles to treating it, are these conversations.
Delaney Ruston, MD
Schizophrenia Fact Sheet
- One in 100 people have schizophrenia, twice as common as HIV/AIDS
- The growing number of people with schizophrenia is part of larger mental health crisis in the US, from suicides on school campuses, returning veterans suffering mental problems, to thousands of mentally ill people living on the streets
- Schizophrenia is a chronic brain disease. MRI scans often reveal brain anatomy differences and lab tests show abnormal brain chemical levels
- Symptoms begin around age 16 to 30, and include delusions, social withdrawal, and problems with rational thought
- The cause of schizophrenia is unknown but genetics do play a factor. The risk of developing schizophrenia increase from 1% in the general population to 10% if a parent has the illness
- The vast majority of people with schizophrenia will have improvement of symptoms on antipsychotic medications
- Roughly 50% of afflicted individuals are not receiving any treatment
For more information on mental health organizations and resources go to: unlistedfilm.com/organizations
The Reel NW Connection
Reel NW focuses on the very best of independent film from the Northwest. Every week, Reel NW airs intriguing films from, or about, our own community. Delaney Ruston, MD divides her time between filmmaking and providing primary medical care in clinics for underserved patients in Seattle.