Poetker (’22) featured in Emmy Award winning documentary.

Barrett Poetker ('22) was a part of the documentary

Photo courtesy of Barrett Poetker ('22)

Barrett Poetker ('22) was a part of the documentary "You're Not Alone" which won a regional Emmy Award in the Outstanding Achievement for Children/Youth/Teen Programming category.

TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains discussions of suicide that may not be suitable for all readers.

Barrett Poetker (‘22) was featured in a documentary film that recently won an Emmy Award. “You’re Not Alone” follows the lives of four high school students navigating their struggles with mental health. The documentary was created by Milwaukee PBS in partnership with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for the Wisconsin’s Kids in Crisis series. This film highlights the increase in suicide rates and gaps in mental health care Wisconsin has experienced over the past three years. On Nov. 16, the special won a regional Emmy Award in the Outstanding Achievement for Children/Youth/Teen Programming category.

The students featured in the film have experienced discrimination, incarceration, bullying, and assault. “You’re Not Alone” shows how they survived their ordeals and demonstrates how healing is possible to those going through the same thing.

Co-producer, Maryann Lazarski used visual media to shed light on the reality of mental health in the midwest.

“The primary motivation behind this piece was to help other youth struggling with mental health issues and their families,” Lazarski said. “Everyone is touched by mental health. You either have someone in your family, or you know a friend or someone who is battling something. We want to eliminate the stigma. Having these four young people speak in their own voices really helps other youth have the courage to speak up and get help.”

Among the four is Barrett Poetker (‘22), who shared her experiences with bullying and how it affected her. Poetker first dealt with systemic bullying in seventh grade, but it didn’t truly start to impact her self esteem until she entered Brookfield East High School. After being cut from her volleyball team, a group of former teammates began to circulate vicious texts about her character and threaten violence.

This bullying triggered Poetker’s suicidal ideation, but she kept fighting.

“I didn’t end up killing myself, because I knew that that would be me saying, ‘Okay, you win,’” Poetker said in the documentary. “I thought that if I give in to them and kill myself now, I am hurting my family, but I am also telling them that they win, and that’s something okay for them to do.”

Poetker helped found an advocacy group at her high school that promoted mental health awareness and outreach. Once she began college, she continued to treat her depression and anxiety. She re-entered the world of volleyball, and became a defensive specialist for the Luther’s volleyball team, which is featured in the documentary.

“Being [at Luther] is a good new start,” Poetker said. “The people are a lot more accepting. It’s almost like we’re all grown up here. There’s no more of the high school pettiness.”

The road to the Emmy Awards was a long process. First, the producers had to determine what they wanted their documentary to be about. Once they chose to bring the mental health concerns of high schoolers to the screen, they began the search for their subjects.

“We wanted to make sure we profiled a diverse set of people in order to highlight the different realities that people experience — be it race, gender, sexual orientation, or the particular mental health challenge,” Multimedia Producer at Milwaukee PBS Scottie Lee Meyers said. “It was important for us that the wide number of viewers be able to watch the documentary and identify with what they were seeing. That kind of connection is important.”

Poetker was approached about the project in 2017, and filming took place during the following two years at her high school as well as Luther. Poetker expressed some reservations about allowing a film crew into her life for periods of time.

“I had never shared these parts of my life with many people, much less internationally, so I felt super exposed in doing so,” Poetker said. “Reliving the worst years of my life was a hard

thing to reflect on, and doing that in front of the camera crew, people I had never met before, made it so much harder. I was so scared of what people would think of me.”

Ultimately, Poetker came to the conclusion that this visibility was necessary to spread her message of resilience.

“I had never really spoken publicly about my struggles besides my social media, but seeing the positive outreach since filming has allowed me to realize how powerful sharing my story has been in so many people’s lives.” Poetker said.

The effect of the film has been far-reaching. Meyers hopes that the documentary will inspire societal and policy changes,. She suggests that a recent bill signed by Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, which provides grants to schools to start peer- to-peer programs for mental health awareness, was partially inspired by public reaction and discourse surrounding the documentary.

Yet Poetker has simpler aspirations for the feature.

“My hope is that people realize that mental illness is a very normal and common thing,” Poetker said. “It should not be ignored in daily life. Whether it is talk therapy or medication, it is completely okay to ask for help with mental struggles, just as one would for physical struggles. Additionally, I hope people realize they do not need to feel ashamed of their mental health, regardless of their severity. Everyone walks their own path of life with their own struggles. It is okay to reach out to help overcome the aftermath of those issues.”

Poetker shared her story in hopes of inspiring others to seek help with their own mental health challenges.
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