January 15, 2001

They're Listening

U.S. Surgeon General, Hollywood come together to make a silent health issue public

By Valerie Kuklenski

Hollywood in recent years has not been known to shy away from sensitive subjects. Quite the opposite is true. Bring it on, the creators and actors say, the grittier the better.

But there is one topic that is so touchy, films and television shows barely dare to speak its name: teen suicide.

That subject and other mental-illness matters were what brought U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher to Los Angeles last week to meet with actors, producers and others in a seminar sponsored by the Entertainment Industries Council. It was only the second time a surgeon general has addressed Hollywood, after Dr. Everett Koop's 1987 meeting about AIDS.

EIC's mission is to help filmmakers and TV producers develop credible stories dealing with health topics such as AIDS, drug and alcohol addiction, gun violence, and mental illness.

At the Mental Health Portrayls in Media symposium, Satcher said teen suicide is one topic that has been overlooked by the enterainment media. Statistics show that it is the third leading cause of death for Americans 15 to 24 years old, far ahead of homicides and AIDS.

Suicide is very much a silent public-health issue, Satcher said.

But seminar panelist Dr. Neal Baer, former executive producer of ER who now works on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit said teen suicide is tough to address, even compared to pedophilia, incest and other sex crimes.

We have done some teen suicide stories on ER in the last few years, but its tricky, because there's some evidence that there may be a copycat element, Baer said in an interview. That means you can't romanticize it. The networks are very nervous about it.

I actually think it's probably not the case, added Baer, a pediatrics resident at Children's Hospital of Los Angeles. I think a kid who is going to do something will do something (even without seeing it on TV). There's a world out there. But I think (producers) have to act responsibly.

Brian Dyak, president and chief executive officer of EIC, said more research into audience reaction to suicide stories needs to be done before EIC experts can make recommendations to Hollywood on it.

Sally Field also sat on the panel because of her 1976 Emmy-winning role as the multiple-personality-plagued title character in Sybil and her highly praised recurring part this season as a manic-depressive mother on ER.

As an actor, I'm a tool in the process, Field said. When dealing with such an important issue, it's important that I sufficiently research the topic so that I can bring honesty and credibility to my depiction of a character who suffers from mental disorders.