Steiger, Cronkite dispel myths about mental illness

News reports on the arrest of Unabomber suspect Theodore Kaczynski clearly illustrate the kind of stigma faced by the mentally ill, according to author and journalist Kathy Cronkite. "It turns out that the Unabomber and I take the same [anti-depressant] medication," said Cronkite, who battled clinical depression for 25 years before seeking treatment. She said the media reported the discovery of the medication in Kaczynski's cabin in virtually the same breath as they reported the discovery of bomb parts and hit lists.

"That kind of report further stigmatizes the mentally ill and frightens people away from life-saving medication," said Cronkite, daughter of legendary broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite. Along with actor Rod Steiger, Cronkite shared her battle with depression and discussed the social stigma of mental illness April 17 at the final installment of this year's "Conversations at The Carter Center" series.

What the overwhelming majority of society does not understand, Cronkite explained, is that everyone with a brain is as susceptible to mental illness as everyone with lungs is susceptible to pneumonia. "The diagnosis of depression was a great relief for me," Cronkite said. "If what I had was an illness with a name and a treatment, then I knew there was hope."

Steiger, who won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of a small town southern sheriff in the 1967 film "In the Heat of the Night," read from reflections he had written about his eight-year fight against clinical depression. The reading included disturbing accounts of suicidal fantasies, attacks of paranoia, feelings of overwhelming guilt and unprovoked outbursts of rage.

"I have chemical depression," Steiger said. "I have to take my medication once in the morning and once at night. If I don't, I'm great for two weeks or so, then it stops." Steiger stressed the importance of distinguishing between clinical depression, which is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and usually can be treated with medication, and what he termed social depression or the blues, which is a temporary phenomenon usually brought on by a specific event. He said the idea of pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps may work fine for the blues, but it cannot work for chemical depression.

Both Steiger and Cronkite credited their spouses with pulling them through their depressions with unwavering support and understanding. Two audience members later shared experiences in which that kind of understanding was lacking. One woman, who said she had been battling depression for more than two years, said she had asked her husband to attend the event with her, but he declined, saying that he had had plenty of education on mental illness already.

Another woman related the story of her son's hospitalization in a psychiatric wing while away at college. She said no one from the university's administration or any of her son's classmates came to visit or sent cards or flowers. She contrasted that with the experience of one her son's classmates, who had been injured in a car accident. Unlike her son, the other student received constant visits from university officials and friends, as well as numerous cards and letters.

The starkly different ways in which mental and physical illnesses are perceived have long been pointed out by former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, who hosted the event. Carter praised the recently begun initiative of the Rotary Clubs to fight the stigma associated with mental illness. "We've learned so much about the brain in the past 20 to 30 years," Carter said. "We've learned that mental illness is a disease often caused by biological factors, and that it can be treated with medications. There is no reason for anyone with a mental illness to be ashamed. Yet that stigma is still so pervasive. We need to address that stigma by increasing public awareness and education about mental illness. We must let the world know that most people with mental illnesses can live at home, hold a job and function as contributing members of society."

--Dan Treadaway

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