Unraveling the mystery: PBS series focuses on destigmatizing mental illness

Opened in 1880, The Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane was once a state-of-the-art facility, built according to the Kirkbride Plan — a system for mental asylum design named after the physician who developed it. (Courtesy of Pangloss Films)

One in four people will suffer from a mental illness during their lifetime.

With the pandemic, this is an issue that has been magnified.

This is exactly the reason WGBH launched its multiplatform initiative focused on destigmatizing mental illness by exploring issues surrounding mental health in society today.

The four-part series “Mysteries of Mental Illness” will premiere on Tuesday, June 22, and the final two pieces will run on Wednesday, June 23. The series will air on New Mexico PBS, channel 5.1.

As a companion piece, the 20-episode short-form digital series “Mysteries of Mental Illness: Decolonizing Mental Health” will look at inequities in access to mental health resources in communities that have been marginalized.

Laurie Donnelly is co-executive producer of “Mysteries of Mental Illness.”

She says the stigma with mental illness goes back decades.

“It’s really a complex subject and there is no kind of diagnosis that you can have for mental illness,” she says. “It’s elusive.”

Jeremiah Robinson spends time with his children in a Chicago park. Jeremiah has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and PTSD. He has been incarcerated 19 times. (Courtesy of Pangloss Films)

Donnelly says it was important to tell the story of mental illness and the historical effort of both sides.

“COVID made it even more pronounced,” she says of mental illness. “We were all sequestered inside. At that point, one of every two people was suffering from mental illness.”

“Mysteries of Mental Illness” traces the evolution of this complex topic, presenting cutting-edge science and giving voice to contemporary Americans across a spectrum of experiences.

Each of the broadcast hours features up-close portraits of individuals sharing their deeply personal stories, as well as important insight from mental health practitioners, experts and scholars.

Jeffrey A. Lieberman’s book, “Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry,” was one of the inspirations for “Mysteries of Mental Illness” and his is among the many voices featured in the series.

“These people felt comfortable enough to tell their stories,” she says. “You have to understand it from a cultural, historical and scientific point of view. These were driven by personal stories and their struggles.”

Chris Hastings is executive producer for “Mysteries of Mental Illness: Decolonizing Mental Health” and the 20 digital episodes dive deep into personal stories, as well.

The online series introduces viewers to patients and healthcare providers from underserved communities who speak about their own needs within the mental health care system, as well as how they access much-needed resources.

Biological Anthropologist Molly Zuckerman studies the bones of a body exhumed from the Mississippi State Asylum Cemetery. Hidden under the grounds of the University of Mississippis Medical School Campus the cemetary was long forgotten and unmarked, until 67 bodies were unearthed during construction in 2012. Some 7000 bodies are believed to still be buried on site. (Courtesy of Pangloss Films)

The series, which consists of 20 three- to five-minute profiles, discusses what a more responsive mental health care system should look like.

“World Channel is dedicated to bringing stories from underrepresented voices to the forefront on public media,” Hasting says. “ ‘Mysteries of Mental Illness: Decolonizing Mental Health’ is about populations where mental health issues often go unreported, untreated, or ignored.”

Hastings had difficulty getting subjects for the project because of the pandemic.

Though the process was difficult, he saw some amazing results.

“Even though each person was talking about the inequality, they are finding ways to service their communities,” Hastings says. “There was a barrier for us because we wanted to spent more time with each subject. We had to be quick about it. What we have is a good snapshot of some dynamic personalities who are hopeful for some help.”

Detainees on a housing tier at Cook County Jail. Of the more than 4000 detainees at Cook County Jail, some 40 have a diagnosed mental illness. Across the United States there are 10 times more mentally ill housed in prisons and jails than in mental hospitals. (Courtesy of Pangloss Films)



The four-episode “Mysteries of Mental Illness” documentary series includes:

8 p.m. Tuesday, June 22: “Evil or Illness” follows mental health activist Cecilia McGough, who, despite struggling with persistent hallucinations and delusions, helps hundreds around the world find support and community through her organization, Students with Psychosis. Other current-day profiles include Virginia Fuchs, an Olympics-bound boxer living with OCD, and Lorina Gutierrez, who was committed to a psychiatric hospital until her psychosis was revealed to be the result of an ovarian tumor. The first hour of the documentary series provides a revealing examination of ancient concepts of mental illness and the establishment of psychiatry with the rise of Sigmund Freud.

9 p.m. Tuesday, June 22: “Who’s Normal?” delves into how science and societal factors are deeply entwined with our ever-shifting definitions and diagnoses of mental health and illness. The second half of the 20th century brought a struggle to develop mental illness standards rooted in empirical science rather than dogma, including the evolution of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), which remains the so-called “Bible of Psychiatry” today, despite what many acknowledge are its deep and fundamental flaws. Profiles include Ryan Mains, a former firefighter and Iraq veteran struggling with PTSD; Mia Yamamoto who was born in a Japanese internment camp and long resisted being labeled mentally ill before she became California’s first openly transgender lawyer; and Michael Walrond, a Harlem-based pastor who lives with a depressive disorder.

8 p.m. Wednesday, June 23: “Rise and Fall of the Asylum” chronicles mass confinement in mental asylums (some holding up to 19,000 people) and extreme treatments — from lobotomy to coma therapy — were standard treatment for mental illness in the U.S. until a few decades ago. Today, the nation’s largest de facto mental health facility is Cook County Jail in Chicago, where more than one-third of inmates has a mental health diagnosis. As Sheriff Tom Dart attempts to tackle this crisis through a range of mental health treatments and programs, we meet the detainees whose lives hang in the balance, and discover the harsh realities of care in and out of jail.

9 p.m. Wednesday, June 23: “The New Frontiers” takes a look at today’s most groundbreaking treatments, based on the latest scientific understanding of the biological underpinnings of mental illness, with profiles of patients undergoing a variety of treatments. These include deep brain stimulation surgery; infusions of ketamine — the first new psychiatric drug in decades; and modern electro-convulsive therapy. Alongside cutting-edge treatments, one of the most urgent fronts in the battle against mental illness is the fight for inclusion — a society more open to all kinds of minds and behavior, free from stigma, based on the understanding that mental health exists on a spectrum, and respect for each individual’s right to choose what’s right for them.

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