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E.M. filmmaker tackles youth suicide in his next documentary

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In an upcoming documentary, Max Hechtman, 21, of East Meadow, wanted to dive into what he called one of the most important issues affecting people his age. The incoming senior at Fashion Institute of Technology has spent the past few months crafting a film that examines mental illness, youth suicide and how such topics are seen in the media today.

“I felt the best way to make an impact on young people and discourage at least one person from the act of suicide would be to tell the story from personal, clinical and crisis response perspectives,” he said.

Hechtman recalled first growing aware of the issue as a student at Woodland Middle School in East Meadow, when suicide prevention activist John Halligan gave a presentation about his son Ryan, who committed suicide at 13 in 2003. “It was very emotional to heart about that,” Hechtman said.

The idea piqued in Hechtman’s mind again when he saw the Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen” last year and set out to spread awareness of the issue through a film in his Junior Production class at FIT.

“We try to encourage students to run with whatever they’re passionate about,” said Hechtman’s professor Josh Koury. “Sometimes it’s a more personal film, sometimes it’s a personal narrative. With Max, it’s a topic that he felt was really important to him and he’s seen in other media and really wanted to explore in this format.”

The working title of the film is “Youth Suicide Prevention: Stories of Strength and Hope” and it includes interviews and personal accounts with Halligan, a counselor at the Response Crisis Center in Suffolk and its executive director Meryl Cassidy, and Harold Koplewicz, president of the Child Mind Institute.

“As with many of the students, you could see them grow with each assignment,” Koury continued. “This was probably one of his most ambitious projects.”

Hechtman said that he learned a lot through the project, including the impact that social media has on those with suicidal tendencies. “The more screen time you have a day, the less face-to-face time,” he said, adding that this could make someone with mental health issues feel isolated and alone.

The film also explores how suicide is portrayed in the media, such as in “Dear Evan Hansen” and the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.” Both of which, Hechtman said, do not examine the mental health of the characters who are suicidal. “They completely hide that,” Hechtman said, adding that he also learned from Koplewicz, of the Child Mind Institute, that 90 percent of teenagers who commit suicide or attempt it have an anxiety disorder.

Hechtman’s film is currently in post-production and he intends to submit it to film festivals this coming year. He has filmed a number of shorts and documentaries in the past, including “FIT Hives: Sustainability- The Secret to Survival,” a documentary examining the benefits of beehives in the FIT community, and “I Am Here,” a romantic mystery about the dangers of texting strangers. His films have premiered at festivals like the Long island International Film Expo, New Filmmakers NY and the Gold Reel Student Film Festival in North Carolina.

Hechtman is currently writing the script for his senior film, in which he will again explore youth suicide and mental health.