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Project Wake Up documentary shines a bright light on mental health

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A still from Project Wake Up’s short film “Wounds,” which addresses the unseen wounds faced by those dealing with mental health issues.

Wake up! That’s the message that Alex Lindley is spreading through the nonprofit he helped to found off tragedy and heartbreak.

In 2012, Lindley’s friend Carolyn Dolan took her own life. Although college students at the time, a group of friends, including Dolan and Lindley, had remained close since their Parkway West Middle days. The friends hadn’t experienced a loss quite like this one and instead of banding together, Lindley said there was silence.

“We didn’t talk about it. We didn’t know how,” he said. “Some of us had experienced traumatic loss, but certainly not suicide.”

Lindley knew Dolan was battling some form of mental illness, and she often was down while going through tough times. But he never expected the outcome. When a second friend in that group, Ryan Candice, died by suicide two years later, Lindley was reeling.

“Personally, I was hyper-vigilant in looking for signs that my friends were contemplating suicide,” Lindley said. “I knew Ryan had anxiety, but never to the point that I had the inclination he would take his own life. He was everyone’s best friend, the life of the party. It was absurd that I would lose two close friends through suicide.”

The desire to take action came into focus after Candice’s death.

Even after losing Dolan, Lindley believes Candice didn’t feel comfortable talking about his struggles. Lindley said he believes the stigma surrounding mental illness contributed to both deaths. So, in October 2014, he formed Project Wake Up, a nonprofit with the mission of getting people talking about mental health and suicide.

Friends, family and classmates at Mizzou formed its steering committee. From that group, the idea to create a documentary, which would preserve Candice’s memory and end the stigma of mental illness, was born.

From small thought to big screen and beyond

Lindley admits the group was naïve regarding what it would take to produce the film; however, on a crowdfunding site, it raised $10,000 in just 20 hours. Ultimately, that income source plateaued at $40,000 but it was enough to set the plan in motion, which included obtaining its 501[c][3] nonprofit status. Initially, the funds covered the cost of a 12-minute short [film], which provided insight and direction for the documentary to come. The short also served as a marketing tool when applying for grants.

St. Louis-born director Nate Townsend and Los Angeles-based Clutch Productions were hired as crew for the film. Townsend understood the raw feelings of grief, having lost his brother in an auto accident. Lindley described him as “a natural fit.”

The short was released on social media and YouTube in the summer of 2015. But that was only the beginning.

In total, the nonprofit has raised over $300,000, which includes two $25,000 grants from the Crawford Taylor Foundation, whose mission is to enable and enhance programs that create lasting legacies within the St. Louis community.

Filming of the 90-minute documentary began in December 2017. On July 27, it will have its first screening during a private event at the St. Louis Art Museum. Public show times are yet to be determined.

While the documentary content has evolved over time, Lindley said one aspect has remained constant – keeping Ryan Candice’s memory alive.

“The most important aspect is keeping Ryan’s memory alive. No matter how it has shaped and evolved over the last few years, Ryan is still the alpha and omega of the film,” Lindley explained. “We also dedicated the film to Carolyn and honor her memory as well.”

The team hopes the film will generate buzz and a bidding war with such outlets as Netflix and Amazon. Lindley also hopes to distribute the film nationally across college campuses.

“Whether it is shown as part of an incoming student’s orientation program or at mental health awareness events, we want this in as many hands as possible,” Lindley said.

After attending extensive training on campus shortly after Candice’s death, Lindley and others formed the Mizzou Student Suicide Prevention Coalition, which continues to raise awareness and help connect students and their families to resources. Many of the coalition’s members have been involved in the project since its beginning.

Additionally, Project Wake Up continues to spearhead efforts to create chapters on campuses nationwide. A dozen groups are interested in joining the cause.

In 2018, the Ryan J. Candice Memorial Scholarship was created at Mizzou, with an initial endowment of $25,000. It will award between $1,000 and $1,500 annually to a student pursuing a degree in social work.

To fund the scholarship and other activities, Project Wake Up continues to raise funds through trivia nights, donations and the annual Ryan J. Candice Memorial Golf Tournament, now in its fourth year. The 2019 tournament is scheduled to take place at the Norman K. Probstein Golf Course in Forest Park on Sept. 14. Details are available at projectwakeup.org.

“The completion of the documentary is not the end of Project Wake Up,” Lindley said. “Rather, we hope this documentary shines a brighter light on the issue and makes an impact that will go beyond St. Louis.”