Four big takeaways from National Geographic's new 'Fauci' documentary

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci

When I first saw the preview of National Geographic's documentary about Anthony Fauci, I was confused. My assumption was that the documentary was made to profile his role in the COVID-19 pandemic response as that's how he became a household name. How did the filmmakers know they would need to get footage of Fauci at the very beginning of the pandemic, when no one knew yet what it would become?

The answer is: They didn't. This film was never intended to be about this pandemic at all. The profile of Anthony Fauci was planned by award-winning filmmakers John Hoffman and Janet Tobias in 2018 and they began filming in the fall of 2019, several months before anyone had even heard of SARS-CoV-2. The filmmakers originally planned to highlight Fauci as a lesser-known public servant, focusing primarily on his work throughout the AIDS pandemic.

What they ended up with is parallel stories of Fauci's AIDS work and Fauci's COVID response, and their "lesser-known" subject becoming a superstar during the making of the film. In fact, the press release for the film included the following, which is an unusual disclaimer but one the filmmakers felt necessary in the current climate: "Dr. Fauci had no creative control over the film. He was not paid for his participation, nor does he have any financial interest in the film's release."


Fauci | Official Trailer | National Geographic Documentary Films www.youtube.com

The film flips back and forth in time from the '80s and '90s to the past two years, showing us the work of a much younger Fauci beside his current, impressively spry, 80-year-old self. Here's what stood out most to me:

The man is the epitome of a dedicated public servant.

Regardless of what the whackadoodle conspiracy theorists think, Fauci's dedication to his work is unparalleled. While he is paid well—at $418,000/year he makes more than the president—his salary is not outrageous for a doctor who has been working for decades, and seeing him in his home, it's clear he's not living an opulent lifestyle. He says he feels a "very deep sense of responsibility" in his work, which is clear when you see his career play out in this film.

He's not afraid to tell the truth.

Fauci is a tough cookie in the best way. He knows he's "the bad guy" to a certain subset of the population. "I represent something that's uncomfortable for them," he says in the documentary. "It's called the truth."

President George W. Bush told filmmakers that when Fauci meets with you, you know he's going to lay out the facts no matter how they might affect the politics. "Tony Fauci doesn't come into the Oval Office to make you look good," he laughed.

During the first year of the COVID pandemic, Fauci found himself in the unique position of having to fact-check the president in real time. He also faced resistance from within. The film actually opens with Fauci on the phone being told that the White House had declined TV spots about COVID vaccine development because the president wanted to focus on the economy. When the filmmakers asked Fauci about his meetings with the president early in the pandemic, he gently laughed and said, "Yikes." That pretty much sums things up.

Fauci has served under six presidents and always with the goal of keeping the science at the forefront. As a government employee, he has to deal with policy, but as we see behind the scenes in his work with the AIDS crisis as well as the COVID pandemic, he doesn't care about politics. He cares about science—and he cares about people.

His empathy is what makes him effective in his work.

What was most striking in seeing Fauci's career play out is how often he talks about putting himself in other people's shoes and seeing things from their perspective. When AIDS activists protested the National Institutes of Health's handling of AIDS treatment, he didn't dismiss them. He listened. He went to activist meetings and dialogued with them. He thoughtfully explained what they were wrong about, and also thoughtfully acknowledged what they were right about.

"My weapon, in addition to the science, is speaking to the American people," he says. People who saw him as an enemy grew to admire him. In fact, one AIDS activist who had led protests outside the NIH during the AIDS crisis said he has been regularly checking in with Fauci to see how he's doing with the vitriol and threats he's received during the COVID pandemic. (Fauci is a level-headed guy, but we see him drop an angry f-bomb when his daughters were being threatened.)

As a disease specialist, Fauci is brilliant. But he has an intuitive finger on the pulse of human nature as well, which makes him ideally suited to the work he does.

Fauci hasn't changed. Our society has.

Seeing certain people call for Fauci to be fired and accusing him of lying, covering up research, causing the pandemic or [fill-in-conspiratorial-Tucker-Carlson-talking-point-here] feels utterly ridiculous. The man is 80 years old and has dedicated his entire life to fighting and treating infectious diseases. The idea that he would somehow suddenly become some kind of evil player in a global conspiracy to control the masses or whatever inane idea people have come up with is ludicrous.

Fauci was vilified early in the AIDS pandemic, but it was nothing compared to what he's experienced with COVID-19. "The whole atmosphere strains your concept of what normality is," he says in the doc. Our divisiveness can't continue if we hope to be prepared for the next pandemic, he says. It just won't work. And we have a common enemy—the virus—which should be uniting us.

That goes for Americans as well as our global society.

"When you have a global pandemic, you need a global solution," says Fauci. "To think you can just take care of yourself ... is just folly."

As the film shows, we got there with AIDS. The life-saving AIDS cocktail was developed in the United States, $15 billion was invested by the second Bush administration to distribute the medicines to vulnerable populations across Africa, and Democrats and Republicans united to back the investment.

Much of the success of AIDS treatment is owed to Dr. Fauci. And I am 100% sure that history will be much fairer to him than many Americans have been during this pandemic.

"It's always the sustained investment in science that rises to the occasion," says Fauci. Again, always putting the spotlight back on the science.

"Fauci" can be seen by all Disney+ subscribers on October 6, and you can read more about the making of the film here. Definitely worth a watch.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

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Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

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Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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