Eric McCormack Moderates Real-Life Discussion of Mental Illness on Campus

Eric McCormack is an articulate actor who played the fictional Dr. Daniel Pierce, a crime-solving schizophrenic neuropsychiatrist in the dramatic television series Perception.

As McCormack is careful to clarify, “I’m not a professor, nor am I a person living with paranoid schizophrenia… I just play one on TV.”  McCormack largely modeled his character after the real-life Elyn Saks, a highly successful academic who battles schizophrenia. Late last year, McCormack joined Professor Saks to moderate a panel discussion at USC’s Gould School of Law: “In Real Life and as Seen on TV: Stories of Mental Health on Campus,” sponsored by the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics.

The event also featured Jessie Close (sister of actress Glenn Close) and law student Sam Brown. They told their personal stories in an effort to spur the discussion about the problems of stigma and shame (i.e., “self-stigma”) among sufferers of mental illness, particularly college students, and how the media and university community have the power to harm or help. McCormack remarked:

“The stigma of mental illness…is the result of fear and ignorance.  People fear and despise what they don’t understand. And when the media only discuss schizophrenia after there has been a mass shooting, it only increases that fear and that ignorance.”

McCormack further noted the media’s contribution to the stigma around mental illness; a TV show like Criminal Minds or The Blacklist, in which the focus each week is someone with “something wrong upstairs,” risks sensationalizing and trivializing mental illness. He asked the panelists whether the media had contributed to their own sense of shame about their mental illnesses.

Brown admitted to being affected by media reports about mass shootings and drama shows, but he could not suggest a satisfactory solution for the media.

 “I don’t think it makes good news, when mentally ill people take their medication and go on with their day,” Brown reasoned.

Elyn Saks thought the media had improved in the area of mental illness over the years compared to the 1960s and ‘70s.

“When I look back, there weren’t that many shows that portrayed mental illness. We have that now…It’s really good to portray the illnesses accurately and sensitively, and I think we’re doing that more than we used to.

Saks thought that one way the media can reduce the stigma associated with mental illness is that if there were violence committed by a mentally ill person, it should be put in context.  She noted that only a small percentage of violence is committed by mentally ill people, and people with mental illness are much likelier to be victimized, e.g., 20 times likelier to be murdered.  She also proposed telling success stories that humanize the mentally ill, for example, McCormack’s character Daniel Pierce:  He’s got schizophrenia.  He struggles with it.  He doesn’t completely accept it.  He functions with it.

McCormack asked how the shame of mental illness could be mitigated, especially in a campus setting.  All the panelists agreed that early detection could save students from much of that shame.

When Close was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she called her sister Glenn Close, who was much relieved:

“Oh, thank God it’s actually something, and you’re not just crazy!’”

Professor Saks suggested mental health education in high schools, so that people know what some of the signs and symptoms are.

Being diagnosed with a mood disorder forced Brown to accept that, “this was a part of me; my mood was myself…my personality…I was going to have to deal with it.”  His condition did not prevent Brown’s graduation from UCLA in 2007.  He first encountered stigmatization, when he was no longer wanted at a camp where he had previously enjoyed a summer job for several years. Due to his experience with the camp, he had decided to be tight-lipped about his condition at law school, first “coming out” at this public panel discussion event.

Recently married, law student Brown revealed that he would tend to tell his dates early on about his mental illness. “It’s important to tell; you need someone to know who you are quickly.  It’s not something you are going to hide.”  Brown cautioned that the person with mental illness can become the monopolizer of “complicated” in the relationship, potentially a source of tension for a new couple.

Saks further illustrated the problem of self-stigma from her own life.  She shared how she had once received a message T-shirt about schizophrenia as a gift.  Saks thought, “Do I really want to wear a T-shirt that identifies me as having schizophrenia?”  Then she thought:

“I’ve also had cancer.  People wear armbands and pins and T-shirts in pride, with solidarity and without shame…and that’s the way it should be with schizophrenia also, but it’s not.  And I myself am guilty of those negative shameful feelings.”

However, Brown was most concerned about stigma placed on the mentally ill by others:

“When I first got out of the hospital, my family and friends were so on-the-ball, as if nothing had happened to me, nothing’s changed.  So I came out with this open attitude about it.  I probably told too many people…I probably told girls too quickly when I was courting them…The people around you, your friends, your family, because they love you, are going to be most willing to accept [mental illness].”

Brown, who plans to practice employment law when he graduates and wrote a soon-to-be published article on “moral fitness” in bar applications, continued about stigma:

“The things that terrify me are employers, law school admissions, the California state bar; to be a lawyer in the state of California you need to tell them that you had a mental illness.  You need to waive your medical privacy.”

Even physicians with lives in their hands are not legally required to do this.

Brown challenged those of us who have been in a hiring situation:

“Are you going to be able to hear about the mental illness of someone applying for a job and say that it just doesn’t matter…It’s the people in real positions of power and the way they treat you that can really knock you down a peg, or lift you up.”

Brown would not want universities to aggressively pursue proposals, such as requiring students to take a mental health test in order to return to school after a break of a semester or quarter, or to condition a student’s return on his continuing to go to therapy.  Although such proposals may be well-intentioned, Brown suggested, “We don’t want a campus where someone feels afraid to “come out’” as a person suffering mental illness.

Brown recognized that some people with mental illness prefer to compartmentalize their illness, to take their medications and see their doctors regularly, but prefer not to identify with their illness. However, he believes that a community is important. Brown advocates developing a strong group identity for people with mental illness.  He compared it to cancer survivors having a strong group identity.  Brown thought it would be positive for the university to foster a sense of community pride in overcoming adversity, not just mental health awareness week when students make sure they’re not sick.

Saks spoke from deep personal experience:

“The worst thing about stigma is that it deters people from getting care, and they shouldn’t have to suffer, but they will unless they get care.”

Close urged students living with mental illness to take care of themselves, find a therapist or counselor they can talk to, and, above all: “Stay in school!”  Despite the obstacles and interruptions that may occur in a one’s studies, “Try, try, try again,” she concluded.

Finally, McCormack commended the panelists for being open about their mental illness in order to further vital public education:

“We educate people about what to do if someone has a heart attack, but we don’t tell them what to do if they suddenly [encounter] a psychotic…and of, course, what are they going to do but back away and fear for their life, as opposed to thinking, ‘How can I help this person?’…It’s hard to teach empathy.”

Nisan Steinberg, PhD, JD

Nisan Steinberg, PhD, JD, writes particularly on dementia- and psychosis-related issues and their intersection with the law, and has published, inter alia, "Regulation of Scientific Misconduct in Federally Funded Research." He is a biotechnology patent attorney who has worked in the neuroscience therapeutic area.
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