One by one, they rose from their chairs to indicate they'd known someone who had committed suicide or had mental illness, until nearly all of the guests were on their feet.
It was a shocking moment at the Erasing the Stigma Leadership Awards sponsored by the Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center in Los Angeles. And it was meant to be. The stigma surrounding mental illness is so pervasive in our society that many people think of it as an "unpopular" disease that strikes only a few, center President Kita Curry told the audience at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. But as guests, who included mental health activist Tipper Gore and Oscar-winning actress Patty Duke, could see from the hundreds standing at their luncheon tables, mental illness is a "universal cause," she said.
Duke -- who chronicled her struggle with manic depression in her 1987 autobiography, "Call Me Anna," and later in the book "A Brilliant Madness" -- was among those receiving awards for helping to educate the public about mental illness at the benefit, which was emceed by CNN talk-show host Larry King.
"I am thrilled, honored, that something I chose to do because of my illness has brought me to the Hirsch gang," said Duke, who lives in Idaho. "Sure, it's the visible ones who get the awards, but it's the invisible ones who do the work." She continues to take medication for her illness. "I take lithium," she said matter-of-factly. "I will until I die."
Also recognized for leadership in the field of mental health education at the May 16 event were author Andrew Solomon, whose illness inspired the 2001 book "The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression" -- which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize -- and center volunteers Lois and Sam Bloom, whose depressed son Sammy's suicide at age 23 in 1982 led them to two decades of activism in the field of suicide prevention.
The good news for their work, said Sam Bloom, is that "suicide is coming out of the closet."
"We are building a national campaign so that more people will know about its causes and treatment," he added. "But we still have a long way to go."