Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Patty Duke vs. mental illness

Actress has spent her life keeping people
talking about, and fighting against,
disease she's beaten

By Peggy O'Farrell
Enquirer staff writer

Academy Award winner, and television actress Patty Duke is honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Actress and author Patty Duke is the featured speaker at Wednesday's Health Improvement Collaborative award dinner. The dinner starts at 5:45 p.m. with registration and cash bar at the Hyatt Regency Cincinnati downtown. Individual tickets are $175 or $250 for a patron ticket. Information: (513) 531-0200, Ext. 108, or www.the-collaborative.org.

Bipolar disorder, sometimes called manic-depressive illness, is a serious medical illness characterized by dramatic mood swings from extreme and irrational euphoria or irritability to deep and life-threatening depression. People who are bipolar often also abuse alcohol and other drugs. Untreated, the disorder disrupts lives and destroys relationships. It can go undiagnosed for years, but can be successfully treated with medication and counseling. More than 2 million American adults have bipolar disorder.

Source: The National Institute of Mental Health (www.nimh.nih.gov)

It's been nearly 20 years since Patty Duke told the world of her battle with bipolar disorder, but people still come up to tell her that they, too, are affected by mental illness.

Most of them still whisper, Duke says, and that tells her how much work remains to be done when it comes to combating the stigma of mental illness.

The public's attitude toward mental illness has changed "a tiny bit," Duke says. "I think it remains vital for people who are in a position to communicate either over the airwaves or any of the media firsthand about it. I think that kind of mini-crusade, if you will, has to continue, and the more of us, the better."

Duke, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Helen Keller in 1962's The Miracle Worker, will speak Wednesday at the Health Improvement Collaborative's awards dinner. The collaborative, which includes leaders from the physician, insurer, employer, hospital, government, education and consumer sectors of health care, addresses health issues in the community.

Lynn Olman, president of the Greater Cincinnati Health Council and executive director of the collaborative, calls Duke "a shining example of a lifetime of success despite her struggle with mental illness. We believe that we can improve the lives of many Tristate residents who struggle with mental health issues, many of which remain undiagnosed."

Duke never wanted to become an advocate for people with mental illnesses, she says, but fate - and fame - intervened.

"One of my jobs that I think is almost God-given is my ability to communicate, and therefore I must use that to reach out to people who are in a position that they think is hopeless. Sometimes I go from city to city to physically show them that it's possible to live a balanced life and sometimes it's writing and sometimes it's television interviews," she says.

"It's also important to me not to present a picture of perfection. I still have highs and lows, just like any other person. Sad things make me sad and happy things make me happy. What's missing is the lack of control over the super highs, which became destructive, and of course, the super lows, which are immediately destructive."

Duke described her struggles with mental illness, alcohol abuse and suicide attempts in her 1987 book Call Me Anna (Bantam; $7.99).

It took 12 years of what she calls "the screaming highs and the moaning lows" before she was diagnosed as bipolar. She still takes lithium twice a day, and her symptoms are gone.

Duke, who now lives in Idaho, doesn't think her illness ever affected her career.

"I'm going to be 58, and I'm a woman, and in this business, that seems to be a bigger crime," she jokes.

E-mail pofarrell@enquirer.com

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