By Tom Harrigan
The Associated Press
BEVERLY HILLS Film and television shows depicting mental illness can help the public learn that it is treatable, and that suicide is preventable, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher said at a Wednesday symposium.
In your shows, you have a greater ability to disseminate information and attitudes than we (health workers) do alone, Satcher said during a panel discussion that also included Oscar-winning actress Sally Field and Dr. Neal Baer, former executive producer of NBC's ER.
However, Satcher said one mental health problem largely ignored by the media has been teen suicide.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for Americans age 15 to 24, far outnumbering murders and deaths from AIDS.
Suicide is very much a silent public health issue, Satcher said at the panel discussion on mental health issues and the media, sponsored by the Entertainment Industries Council.
Baer said ER has dealt with delicate topics such as abortion an dincest, but not suicide.
We don't want to put on a story to romanticize suicide, he said. There are many reports of people being susceptible to what they have seen on TV.
The symposium, sponsored by the Entertainment Industries Council, included clips from ER, The West Wing, Judging Amy, Seventh Heaven, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
As in real life, mental illness is not cured in one episode, Baer said in praising the shows.
When field played a manic-depressive on ER this season, 30 million Americans had the chance to learn about bi-polar disorder, Baer said.
Field, who won an Emmy in 1976 for her title role in Sybil, as a young woman with multiple personalities, said her ER character unflinchingly shows all the sides of this very crippling disorder.
In researching the role, Field said she talked to six people with the disorder, including a woman her age.
Then I was given the script, and I had my own ideas on where this disease would take me if I had it, Field said.
She improvised some of the fire, and the ugliness, that were not in the script, she said.
The panel also included Dr. Kay Jamison, psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and author of the books Unquiet Mind and Touched with Fire. Formerly director of the Mood Disorders Clinic at the University of California, Los Angeles, she spent more than 10 years in her own struggle with bi-polar disorder.
Manic Depression is often accompanied by alcoholism or drug abuse, both common in the entertainment industry, Jamison told the symposium.
Some of her patients at UCLA were industry people worried about the stigma of mental illness, she added.
Their fears of disclosure were rampant and deep. Fears about what their colleagues would think, or what the studios would do, or what the public would think of them, she said.