Unconditional: Mental Health of Caregivers Subject of Powerful Documentary


October 27, 2023

Unconditional Documentary

Unconditional: When Minds Hurt, Love Heals is a 2023 documentary film about mental health and caregiving. The film was directed by MSNBC anchor Richard Lui and took seven years to make.  
It profiles three families, including the Lui family, as they deal with mental health issues. The film highlights how relearning how to love can be transformative.

The film focuses on: 

  • Mental health, which affects millions of Americans
  • Caregiving, which affects the mental health of three families
  • The power of love
  • The caregiving journey of Richard Lui and his father

As a television news anchor, Richard Lui is comfortable in front of a camera. But in the seven years he spent working on a documentary about the mental health of caregiving, including his own mental health as a caregiver for his father, the project took a personal toll.

“First of all, I have given up a lot of my health, physically and mentally,” said Lui, who anchors for MSNBC and NBC News. “I stopped exercising for three years. I pushed myself too much, more than I ever have, and I’ve pushed myself a lot in the past. This was the most.”

But the payoff, as Lui described a few months after the film was widely released, is profound.

Changing the conversation about mental health
As NCOA Board Member Cheryl Woodson, MD, likes to say, “If you think caregiving doesn’t apply to you, keep living.” Millions of Americans are impacted by caregiving, and what’s often missing is an understanding of the mental health challenges that come with the job.

With the tagline “When minds hurt, love heals,” Lui’s film takes a heartbreakingly close look at how caregiving affects the mental health of three families:

The Lui family, of San Francisco, including Richard and his siblings, as his father’s dementia progresses and his mother begins facing some health challenges.
The Bushatz family, of Palmer, Alaska, dealing with father Luke living with post-traumatic stress disorder and the effects of traumatic brain injury.
The Hendricks Thomas family, of Alexandria, Virginia, coping with mom Kate’s cancer diagnosis and treatments.
Shane Thomas says during the film, as he learned he needed to reach out for support for his own mental health while tending to his wife, “I can’t worry myself into a time that I can’t function.”

Lui said his goal for the film that is his second documentary on caregiving is to “open up new conversations about mental health.”

“I want this film to make mental health not equal mental illness,” Lui said as the film was being released on streaming platforms. “I want the film to be able to open up the conversation that mental health equals health.”

Shining a light on caregiving
When Lui’s father was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, “My first inclination was, ‘Alright, how bad is it, and what will he need?’ And then, quickly, it doesn’t take long to figure out he’s going to need a lot of support from those who care for him and love him.”

The next question Lui asked himself, “So do I go small or big or something in-between?”

He knew it wasn’t going to be something small. He decided he was going to need to quit his New York-based  job and move to the west coast, where his parents lived. He went to his boss, Yvette Miley, expecting the conversation to be a resignation or goodbye.

“But she looks at me and goes, ‘I’m a long-distance caregiver, too, Richard.’ I was just like, this is unbelievable.”

That conversation, for Lui, was the beginning of “I can do this.”

He flew back and forth between New York City and San Francisco for about a year, spending as much time as possible with his father. Then Daphne Kwok, AARP’s Vice President VP, Diversity Equity & Inclusion, Asian American & Pacific Islander Audience Strategy, said, “I want to film you doing this.” Kwok explained she wanted to be sure to include different communities of color as the faces of caregiving. Lui allowed the filming.

Then, Lui realized everyone needs to feel like, “That’s us. That we’re being seen. And then I said, ‘Well, how can I help people see how amazing they are in what they’re doing caring for others?’

“So then I want to put them up on the big screen. If I believe this is one of the most important jobs we’ll ever have in our lives, how do I truly show it, not just say it?” Lui decided to “push the envelope here and see if I can get a documentary done.”

A learning curve, and realizing you’re part of a caregiving community
Lui and his producer, Alex Lo, were both first-time filmmakers when they started work on their first caregiving documentary, Sky Blossom, and the subsequent Unconditional.

“When we started out on making these films, I don’t know that I would have called myself a caregiver,” Lo said. Yet he was a caregiver for both his grandparents, who had Alzheimer’s disease. “I think that’s something a lot of the community, the caregiving community, goes through, it’s just something I do for my grandparents or something I do for my mom or dad, or siblings, or a loved one.

“I think that’s part of the caregiving journey, just realizing you’re part of a larger community,” Lo said. “Millions of people are going through this. Part of what attracted me to this project is to give folks that comfort that they’re not alone. There are so many folks going through this with you, who understand.”

Source: National Council on Aging Blog

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