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Filmmaker Ava DuVernay was interviewed last week for #WOW2021, a virtual event featuring a variety of personalities in conversation with preeminent UCLA doctors and researchers. The goal was to raise awareness and reduce the stigma of mental illness.

The first #WOW event took place in 2018 as an all-day summit—#WOW The Wonder of Women— conceived by women, for women, about women. #WOW2021 welcomed men to the conversation. This year’s theme was “Whole Health includes Mental Health” and the fundraiser supported the UCLA Friends of the Semel Institute Research Scholars and UCLA Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital Board of Advisors.

“I started to meditate during the quarantine, which has been interesting and helpful,” DuVernay said. “And the days that I meditate, I can tell.”

She recently joined the Coalition for School Well-Being. Formed in the wake of the pandemic and widespread recognition of racial and social injustices, the coalition is a public/private partnership to make social-emotional learning, mental health, and racial and social justice the cornerstone of education in California.

DuVernay and her staff have created learning companion pieces that pair with the TV shows and movies she directs. She is concerned with how youth are dealing with the pandemic during adolescence.

“Can you imagine that age? she asked. “We’re barely dealing with it as adults.”

DuVernay had a double major in college—English and African-American Studies—and after 15 years in Public Relations, she followed her dream, a dream which has led to becoming the first Black woman to direct a big-budget film “A Wrinkle in Time” and be nominated for Academy Awards for directing for “Selma” and “13th.”

During the interview, which highlighted National Mental Health Month, DuVernay noted that Blacks especially suffer from a lot of mental stress, and not just during the current pandemic.

“The fact that we’re not all out of our minds truly is a testament to the strength of Black people,” she said. “We’re talking about 400 years of degradation and dehumanization; 400-plus years of human bondage, where we were property. And families are a real thing. That stuff gets passed down, right? Not being able to speak your mind for fear of being lynched. You really have to think about the history and not gloss over the harm that’s been done.”

When asked just how she has coped with all the historical and recent stresses of the world, DuVernay credited her upbringing.

“I’ve been fortunate to be fortified by a deep and abiding faith in a power higher than myself,” she said, noting that she practices an attitude of gratitude regularly. “I have really been taught to embrace and love life as its own living, breathing entity. That you’re not just living life—like you are part of a life being lived cooperatively with a lot of other people.”

DuVernay explained that connectivity, that sense of community and camaraderie, is something that she was raised with.

“It’s something that’s really guided me through moments of instability or imbalance, moments of injustice and oppression, moments of being an individual inside of a system that really not only wasn’t made for me but was made to depress and dampen my ability to live a full life.”

She went on to explain that although living in a community seems simple and goes to the core, foundational elements that keep her in balance, not everyone learns that.

“Generally, in American culture, we’re not taught those foundation things, so we have a lot fewer tools to cope when there’s upheaval when there’s a challenge,” Duvernay said. “Not to say I’m living a storybook, but I do feel like I have tools and weapons to fight back when there are challenges.”

Appreciating the arts is another tool, she believes.

“Art is truly an appreciation of beauty, in my mind,” DuVernay said. “Whether you’re watching a horror movie or whether you’re listening to a song about nothing, it’s the beauty. To take it in. To laugh, to be able to gasp, to be able to emote, that’s what art does. So, when you tap into that, it is transformative.

“How many of us after a long day have gone home and put on something and your sprits can get raised by a film or a piece of music, or a painting or a beautiful novel,” she added. “I believe that art is a lifeblood and the more that we say that and name it, embrace it, the healthier we can be because it’s really within everyone’s grasp.”