What inspired Jeff Skoll, former eBay president and man of great fortune, to create a Hollywood film company with a conscience? Are those not oxymoronic, with the American film industry often challenged for selling its soul in the merciless market of modern entertainment? Why buck the tide and risk reputational and economic ruin by founding a company that produced movies meant to "...inspire...and compel social change"? The answer seems to be their courage, leadership and commitment to excellence.
Participant Media, founded in 2004, holds the belief "...that a good story well told can truly make a difference in how one sees the world" -- that stories can compel social change. They have produced 30 films, including "An Inconvenient Truth," "Waiting for 'Superman,' "The Kite Runner," "The Visitor," "Charlie Wilson's War," "Good Night and Good Luck," "Syriana," "The Soloist," and "Food, Inc," among others -- documentaries and indie films that do not shy from social controversy. On May 6, their latest film, in conjunction with Summit Entertainment, will open: "The Beaver," a film about the impact of a serious mental illness on family and community, starring Jodie Foster (who also directs), Mel Gibson (whose troubles delayed release yet who has the unstinting support of Ms. Foster) and Jennifer Lawrence (Academy Award nominee for her role in "Winter's Bone."
Each Participant film is accompanied by a social action campaign to propagate the film's message by enabling viewers to become involved. Each film has a small group of selected social sector organizations whose values and activities resonate with the film and who themselves are making change happen. Courage needs fellow travelers, and Participant Media picks theirs carefully. For "The Beaver," they chose NAMI (The National Alliance on Mental Illness), IMALIVE and To Write Love on Her Arms. More about these organizations below.
But first let me put the issue of mental illness in context. One in four people in the USA will suffer a serious mental illness every year (e.g., clinical depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, OCD, panic disorder, schizophrenia). Yet, less than half of those affected will receive any form of treatment and less than half of those will receive "minimally adequate" treatment. In other words, fewer than 20 percent of people with a mental illness will get properly diagnosed and effectively treated in this country! We are talking about some 40 million children and adults whose illnesses cause great suffering for them, their families, friends and communities, as well as produce massive social and economic burden. One great tragedy is suicide, with 34,000 deaths each year in the U.S., one every 15 minutes (a dozen times more frequent in people with mental disorders) -- and with more deaths annually by suicide than by homicide. Another great tragedy is that so few get effective treatments whose response rates rival chronic medical conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular and lung diseases.
As a psychiatrist and public health doctor, I may be just as much a fan of this film and its social action campaign as I am of Jodie Foster, and I am a huge Jodie Foster fan. The barriers to successful diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders lie in the stigma that attends these conditions, in the lack of knowledge about what treatments work and how to get them and in minimizing the importance of families and friends in treatment and recovery.
NAMI began in 1979 and has been an unparalleled support for families and individuals affected by mental illness. Their advocacy work is well known to government officials nationally and in every state but it is their support to families and individuals affected by mental illness that is their greatest contribution. I have referred countless people to NAMI Affiliates (there are more than 1,000 throughout this country), as well as to their informational and referral sources. NAMI had already worked with Participant on the Social Action Campaign for "The Soloist," so Participant's Social Action Team knew where to turn when doing another film on mental illness (The Soloist depicted a Juilliard trained cellist -- played by Jamie Foxx -- who developed schizophrenia and whose descent led to his living on the streets of Los Angeles). Participant consulted with NAMI for their campaign for "The Beaver" to be sensitive to family and individual "lived experience" with depression and psychosis; NAMI will build on the film's impact through their communication efforts. A NAMI spokesperson remarked on the candid way the film shows the inescapable family experience of mental illness, since it is never just the person with the illness who is affected: family members will have a journey of their own (which Ms. Foster elegantly and painfully portrays). NAMI is a leadership organization, and Participant knew how to find other leaders.
In 1998, Reese Butler's wife, Kristin, hanged herself after suffering from post-partum depression. He mentioned to me that that the last film Kristin saw two weeks before her death was "Contact" (Jodie Foster again), which had a profound effect on her in ways that will remain a mystery, though I did hear Ms. Foster say in an interview that "Contact" may best express her religious beliefs and experience. Reese founded The Kristin Brooks Hope Center out of the ashes of his loss. The Center has since fielded more than 5 million hotline calls through its varied suicide prevention programs. IMALIVE is the newly launched internet embodiment of their 1-800-SUICIDE line; it is this online, live crisis network that is part of Participant's social action campaign. IMALIVE asserts that their crisis line is different in that all their online staff are trained in crisis intervention, including certifying workers in empathy. I am reminded that the psychotherapy literature is rich in evidence demonstrating that empathy is a fundamental ingredient in what works in therapy. Participant is promoting the launch of IMALIVE, as well as funding supervision and training for crisis staff, illustrating their commitment to excellence since capabilities don't just happen, they must be made.
To Write Love on Her Arms had its genesis five years ago to tell the story of a person who could not gain entry into a drug treatment program. It has evolved into a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to foster hope and find help "...for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide" by helping people engage and benefit from treatment. TWLOHA puts on what they call MOVE Community Conferences which aim to reduce stigma, increase community awareness of mental health issues and talk about what it means to"'walk alongside" someone seeking care. Participant has supported conferences in Austin, Los Angeles and New York this past year.
While I have seen many of Participant Media's films, I must admit ignorance to their social action campaigns, until now. I see why Jeff Skoll has faith in the power of story -- told through great films. His leadership and his company's commitment to excellence in film and social causes serve as a heartening testimony that commerce can have a conscience.
The opinions expressed herein are solely my own as a psychiatrist and public health advocate.
Dr. Sederer receives no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.
Visit Dr. Sederer's website at for questions you want answered, reviews and stories.
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