Student aims to improve mental health conversation on campus through documentary

<p>Kayls Keeling, a resident assistant and junior creative writing major, is currently working on a documentary that will feature the stories of different Ball State community members who have struggled with mental health. Keesling hopes to complete the documentary by late April. <strong>Kaiti Sullivan, DN</strong></p>

Kayls Keeling, a resident assistant and junior creative writing major, is currently working on a documentary that will feature the stories of different Ball State community members who have struggled with mental health. Keesling hopes to complete the documentary by late April. Kaiti Sullivan, DN

After experiencing its impact on campus, junior creative writing major Kayls Keesling decided they needed to step up and try to improve awareness and discussion about mental health at Ball State.

As a resident assistant, RA, Keesling joined the 10 Star program where RAs participate in a diversity initiative and create a final project or capstone at the end of the program to showcase what they’ve learned. 

When it came time to pitch an idea for the capstone project, Keesling decided to make a documentary that reflected what they have experienced as a RA as well as some of their own personal experiences on campus and with depression. 

“I’ve struggled a lot with depression and anxiety and some lingering effects of some toxic relationships. Since coming to college, I’ve been able to get help, but sometimes it’s still a struggle,” Keesling said. “Around last January, I did have a very scary incident in which I rehearsed the steps that could lead to suicide.

“While it wasn’t an attempt in the idea of I did something and had to go to the hospital, it was still realizing that ‘Oh, I’ve gotten this far. This is so pressing and so scary.’ Since then, I’ve been really passionate about asking people to share their stories and telling people it’s ok to talk about this.”

Keesling also remembered her participation in a Dear World event held on campus in 2017 as the moment when they realized that not only were other students also struggling, but there was a common theme among them. 

At the Dear World event, where students were asked to write phrases that are important to them on their bodies and have their picture taken, students were allowed to also share the story behind their phrases.

RELATED: Ball State students, faculty share stories with Dear World project

When Keesling heard Trey Moses explain that his phrase honored his best friend Zachary Hollywood, who had died by suicide earlier in the year, they were moved by a specific phrase that he used. Keesling recalls Moses saying that Hollywood was “the last person I’d ever expect.”

RELATED: Remembering Zach Hollywood 

“I remember so clearly that at one point during Trey talking about Zach, he said that Zach was the last person he’d ever expect,” Keesling said. “I had heard that in reference to me sharing my own story before, and I began to realize that was a common narrative.” 

Looking back at Hollywood’s death, Keesling said they wished the Ball State community had reacted differently. 

“I wish our campus community would have come together more and realized that we lost one of our own, we lost a Cardinal when we really didn’t need to and when it could have been prevented,” Keesling said. “This was not a natural death or him being sick and passing away. This was him passing away by suicide and just being so stuck in a dark place that he couldn’t see the light all around him.”

Because of these observations and experiences, Keesling decided to pitch the idea to create a documentary that captures the stories of people who are different ages, come from different backgrounds and lead different lifestyles, but are connected to Ball State and have struggled with maintaining their mental health. 

When Kate Bergel, residence hall director of Brayton Clevenger Hall and an assistant for the documentary, heard the idea, she said she knew it would be powerful. 

“I think this documentary is a new concept for this campus,” Bergel said. “I think students hearing from their fellow students or administrators will help them understand that this is an all-encompassing issue, and that we cannot continue thinking that it’s just something that happens to other people.”

After Keesling’s idea was approved, their team sent out a campus-wide email asking people to share their stories, and Keesling said they were honored to receive the number of submissions that they did, especially because they felt like they were asking the community to bear some of the deepest parts of their personalities to the world.

Now, Keesling is in the editing phase of the documentary called “The Last Person I’d Expect,” and is hoping to have it finished by late April. 

In the documentary, Keesling hopes to not only share community member’s experiences and stories but also the stigmas that are associated with having a mental illness. 

“I know it’s so cliche, but there’s this quote, ‘Everyone is fighting a battle that you know nothing about,’ so letting people know that that is truly true [is the documentaries focus],” Keesling said. “You are never responsible for someone else’s actions, but just carry that awareness with you that you are not the only one struggling and the person that you would least expect probably is.”

When the documentary is complete, Keesling hopes it can be shown in multiple locations on campus and open up paths to new conversation throughout the Ball State community.

“I really hope that students of Ball State really begin to understand that any time we see those tragic headlines of a student who passed away by suicide, they realize that there was so much more to that human as well,” Keesling said. “I also want them to realize that there are suicide survivors.

“I think often we focus rightly on the people who pass away by suicide, but there isn’t always this attentiveness to the people who survived and the people who are still here even when that’s very hard for them.” 

Contact Justice Amick with comments at or on Twitter @justiceamick.


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