Friday, July 25, 2008

Mental Illness in the Media

Heath Ledger’s posthumous appearance as the Joker in the Batman movie "The Dark Knight" this month seems likely to rekindle media speculation that his tragic death in January was a drug-induced suicide.

That’s unfortunate because there is, after all, no conclusive evidence for conjecture that the talented Aussie actor was so mentally depressed that he deliberately ended his life with a drug overdose.

In fact, speculation and gossip linking his death to alleged substance abuse does a disservice to him, his family and his friends. By all accounts, Ledger was a hard-working and respected actor, who — quite tragically — has been taken from us in his prime.

As his final performance draws wide acclaim from delighted audiences, it is important that journalists take care to accurately report about his life and untimely death. Exploitation of his death will only perpetuate existing stigmas about mental health illness, a disease that strikes about one in four Americans in varying forms each year.

The taboo associated with mental illness is deep-rooted and longstanding. For centuries, mental disorders were viewed as a disgrace to be kept quiet and swept under the rug. Patients were separated, locked behind closed doors or put on freakish display to satisfy society’s mass fascination with schadenfreude gone morbid.

Even today, for too many people the term "mental disorder" conjures up fiendish images. The media can — and should — be an unrelenting force combating such stigmas and encouraging people to seek treatment for mental illness.

What many people fail to realize is that mental illness is widespread — leaving no community untouched. Each year, nearly 60 million American adults experience some type of mental health disorder. These disorders can be life threatening — while suicide is a relatively rare occurrence, it is the leading cause of violent deaths worldwide.

A vast majority of people who die by their own hand suffer from a mental illness — often undiagnosed and untreated despite the availability of a growing number of effective treatment options. Annually, less than one-third of adults and one-half of all children with diagnosable mental disorders receive any mental health services.

Reasons for not seeking treatment vary widely. Some people may not recognize or correctly identify the symptoms of mental illness — symptoms often missed by their families and friends as well. Others simply may be reluctant to seek care because of the illnesses’ perceived stigma.

Ongoing education and disease awareness initiatives that emphasize our expanding abilities to treat mental disorders — not sensationalism — are our best hope for permanently erasing the stigma surrounding these illnesses.

Research already shows that the most effective way to reduce stigma is through personal contact with someone with a mental illness. Developing a personal understanding of the science and the facts will make Americans less likely to stigmatize mental illnesses and more likely to seek or encourage treatment.

A targeted public awareness campaign — funded at the level of recent, successful anti-smoking campaigns — will make great strides in educating the public that mental illnesses are biological disorders that can be reliably diagnosed and effectively treated. We have yet to fully carve out a place for mental health within our healthcare system that comes close to the attention we devote to physical illnesses.

Accurate depictions of mental illness in the media and in entertainment can help move us forward. The media and entertainment industries have tackled enormous issues over the years — helping the world gain a better understanding of such complex health concerns as HIV/AIDS, substance abuse and hunger.

The challenge now is to ensure that mental illness receives the same kind of enlightened treatment across the board.

Achieving that will go a long way toward finally stomping out the unfair stigmas that prevent so many Americans from recovering and leading happy, productive lives.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Cut It Out: Anderson Cooper and I Aren’t the Only Ones with Skin Cancer

Time is bolting by with March Madness already upon us and some great basketball being played— love that edge-of-your-seat overtime rush. All this interspersed with the political volleyball of the race for the presidency.

Even with all this going on, EIC is hard at work, launching depiction endeavors on a myriad of health issues with the creative community. We are focusing on work to bring greater attention and understanding of bipolar disorder, diabetes, PTSD, depression and other health and social issues. We also have been active on Capitol Hill, announcing our D.C.-based plans for 2008, and we are grateful for such a positive response from members of the House and Senate.

One of the more challenging endeavors of our work at EIC is taking on long-established norms. A prime example is EIC’s management of the Sun Safety Alliance, a nonprofit organization devoted to preventing and raising awareness about skin cancer. Check it out at I have been involved with this organization since it was founded, and have learned that because of the tan-is-beautiful norm in our culture today, it is essential to continually communicate sun safe practices.

Lauded CNN anchorman and intrepid journalist Anderson Cooper just had his face sliced to remove basal cell carcinoma, a type of non-melanoma skin cancer that happens to be the most common form of cancer in the United States. I am glad that positive reports are stating that it was all cut out. But what does “all cut out” really mean?

Now here is juxtaposition…three-time Olympian Jeff Nygaard, the Bret Favre of Professional Beach Volleyball also has gone under the knife for melanoma, the skin cancer that kills. Fortunately, Jeff caught his cancer before it did irreversible damage to his health. In fact, he is so well recovered that you can catch him on tour this season. But skin cancer isn’t behind him: Jeff is using his voice to remind sun and beach lovers that the time you take to be realistic about the harmful effects of too much sun could save your life.

Jeff and I have been working together recently to raise awareness about skin cancer, one of the most common forms of cancer and one that is almost always 100% preventable. I salute Jeff for speaking out about his own bout with melanoma. His passion to steer young people away from risky exposure to UV radiation is heartfelt and he is voraciously taking on the challenges of defying tanning (or burning) norms that have been established for decades, and seem to have grown in popularity over the past few years. You can read more about how the reality of melanoma hit home for Jeff as he shares his story in this spring’s Sun Safety Alliance newsletter.

In case you’re wondering why I care so much about skin cancer, I have a confession to make.

I have gone under the knife three times to rid myself of the pesky squamous cell carcinoma, the second most prevalent form of skin cancer. You will be hearing a lot about skin cancer prevention from EIC and, yes, I take this effort personally. Trust me, once you are facing the life-or-death consequences of something that could have been prevented by wearing a hat, long sleeves and sunscreen, you wake up. Think about how a deep golden brown tan today may cost you years of your life, and years of time with your children and other loved ones and hopefully you will wake up too, if you’re not already awake to this disease, which scars and kills millions of people.

UV radiation affects everyone, from news anchors to athletes, and everywhere in between. Had I only known that all my unprotected fun in the sun would result in cuts and stitches, I would have lathered up with sunscreen regularly, hung out in the shade more, wore a hat, and compromised my vanity for healthier skin and a healthier life. As I get younger at heart, my skin is getting older than it needs to be, all because of sun damage.

Keep an eye out for our work on skin cancer prevention. We will be bringing sun-safe animated characters to preschoolers, survivor messages to adolescents, supporting moms to take a stand for safe sun practices, and working to create a future where common sense rules. I encourage you to learn, don’t burn. Help to prevent skin cancer for your own sake and the sake of your friends and loved ones….the norm can change from people damaging their skin and health to being sun safe. Australians have been on to this for years. Now it’s our time to help prevent a highly preventable and deadly disease—skin cancer.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Celebrity Rehab

It’s all good! On the eve of the writer’s strikes ending, lots of good things are going on at EIC and the PRISM Awards. We’ve expanded our staff, we have bright new interns, several new industry briefings are in the works, we’ve engaged lots of new volunteers, and new publications (addressing depression/suicide prevention and intellectual disabilities) are just waiting to be shipped to show runners and writers the minute the creative community is back in their offices. I’m also excited about working with a new Congressional session, and dynamic new business partners. By most accounts, 2008 is shaping up to be a great year.

But I do have one ax to grind. I’m bugged by a lot of comments I’ve heard—and articles I’ve read—about celebrities going into rehab.

With 25 years of experience bridging the entertainment and health industries, I am uniquely qualified to respond to the finger-pointing, poking, prodding, lens clicking and tittering that surround celebrity rehab.

And I’ve got something to say.

First and foremost, the celebrity rehab we read about is not a joke for people’s amusement. Thanks to our newly tabloid-driven pop culture, we—and our children—have unprecedented access to what addiction and mental illness look like. Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse, Lindsay Lohan and over two dozen other people gained headlines in 2007 for entering addiction recovery centers.

These are lives at risk, out of control, not jokes, and not reality television shows taking place on the streets of Hollywood for public amusement. If we pay attention, we can see complex stories unfolding before our eyes. One of EIC’s primary principles is to be non-judgmental and respect creative freedom afforded in our great nation. For those who judge mental health, making judgment on these people’s lives, I ask:

Who the hell are you?

Do you think you are better than these people? Stronger? Smarter?

Give me a break.

Addiction and mental health issues affect every cross-section of our population. If you’re laughing now at Britney Spears, will you be laughing in five or ten years when, heaven forbid, your niece, uncle, sister, brother, even your mother or your own son or daughter loses control of his or her life? Will it be funny then?

This new access to the private lives of celebrities who face constant scrutiny and challenges unimaginable by most people—and is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it exposes us to the waking nightmare that losing control of one’s life can be, but on the other hand, it has opened dialogue about addiction and mental illness that has, until now, been hush-hush. While I, like most of America, am truly worried about Britney Spears’s health and safety, I am glad to say I have witnessed a national shift from bemused fascination with her spontaneous antics to recognition of her condition as critically ill, and a new awareness of the real point of rehabilitation: to get better.

VH1’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, A&E’s Intervention, HBO’s Rehab—these are important, revolutionary shows that serve the public in a unique and valuable way. The insights just might help someone, and that is good.

Taking steps to fight and beat the struggles that come along with addiction, being self honest with oneself and ideally healthier is a process not unlike walking through a maze blindfolded. And the good news is, a whole lot of folks find a valuable piece of themselves that they never knew existed in the process. Some make it to the betterment of their own lives, the lives of families, friends, and society.

So the next time you get a peek into the lives of Britney, Lindsay, Mel Gibson, Kirsten Dunst, Pat O’Brien, Eva Mendes, Marc Jacobs, Jesse Mefcalfe, Eddie Van Halen, Amy Winehouse and others, be thankful for what you’ve got and respect them for seeking help rather than looking down on them for having real problems. If their stories make you query your own actions, consider following their good example and ask for help. Thanks to new public attention to the recovery process, which can include relapses, we must stop mocking and start understanding.

Their stories may be the gift others find to deter the sadness of losing friends, family and great, late artists like Heath Ledger, Brad Renfro, and others…you know the list.

John Goodman recently made a telling comment about his recent work in rehab:

"For my family and myself, I voluntarily took the necessary steps to remain sober the rest of my life."

Go for it, John, and thanks for sharing. Yes, “thanks for sharing,” that often-repeated mantra: When anyone, but particularly someone who receives national or worldwide attention because of his or her name, shares experiences of such a personal nature, it really does mean something in the big picture.

Here’s a new reality we all need to face: Going to rehab should be a personal and private experience, but since it’s not for so many, why don’t support those who face it openly and publicly. Why can’t we accept these people as real, as we all are …imperfect human beings, as role models who can show us how to take time to help ourselves when we need it most?

I ask: Is this a problem with role models, or a bad habit of accusing and laughing at other people’s problems?

Cheers to John Goodman and everyone else who has the strength and courage to ask for help and to do so in the public eye.

Everyone below received attention over the past year for entering rehab. I list these people to celebrate them as messengers for the rest of us—as evidence that addiction and mental health issues can affect anyone, regardless of fame and fortune. They are among thousands of people who have been strong enough and smart enough to seek help for their own good and for the good of the people who love them. Many of these celebrities are loved by us—so let’s stop pointing the finger at them and start supporting them as they work to win their lives back!

Daniel Baldwin

Seth "Shifty" Benzer

Pat O'Brien

Selma Blair

Mary Carey


Jeff Conaway

Tara Conner

Pete Doherty

Kirsten Dunst

Jaimee Foxworth

John Goodman

Marc Jacobs

Lindsay Lohan

Eva Mendes

Jesse Metcalfe

Jonathan Rhys Meyers

Joe Nichols

Brigitte Nielsen

Michael Osmond

Ricco "Suave" Rodriguez

Richie Sambora

Jessica Sierra

Britney Spears

Keith Urban

Eddie Van Halen

Scott Weiland

Amy Winehouse

Robbie Williams

Sean Young