10/09/2014 06:29 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2014

An Actor, Writer, Law Student and Genius Award Recipient

"Stigma is the result of ignorance...people fear or despise what they don't understand."
-- Eric McCormack

What do an actor, writer, law student and Genius Award recipient have in common? Apparently, quite a bit. Last week, when actor Eric McCormack, writer Jessie Close, law student Sam Brown, and Genius Award recipient Elyn Saks spoke on a panel at the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy and Ethics, they communicated a shared passion for mental health.

At the symposium (Real Life and as Seen on TV: Stories of Mental Health on Campus.), these inspiring activists candidly shared their own personal experiences and commitment to advocating for others.

In addition to their passion for mental health, the panelists also have experience with research in this area. Eric McCormack engaged in extensive research to comprehend what it might be like to live with schizophrenia, as he prepared for his role as Dr. Pierce in the TV series, Perception. He credits Elyn Saks' book, The Center Cannot Hold, as being a pivotal tool in helping him learn how to accurately play the role. During the panel discussion, the depth of his understanding was apparent, as he spoke respectfully of people living with mental illness and embodied empathy as he led the discussion. He made an important point when he said, "the person you might see talking to themselves on the street is a person too, with a life, a past and a family."

Jessie Close underwent decades of research trying to understand her challenges as she lived with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. At age 50, after much trial and error and treatment for addiction, she was finally properly diagnosed. Additionally, Sam Brown was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had a lot of research and learning to do, as he mistakenly asked if he would need brain surgery for his newly diagnosed brain disorder. Elyn Saks who was honored with a Mac Arthur Genius Award has devoted herself to researching everything there is to know about mental illness through her work at the Saks Institute.

One of the most admirable qualities these four advocates have in common, is motivation for turning their passion into action. Jessie has done this through her writing and work with her sister Glenn to end stigma through their organization, Bring Change 2 Mind. Sam has taken action by raising awareness through his ability to share about his experiences, and his work and writing as a student of law. Elyn's activism is vast and is demonstrated through her books, TED Talk, teaching and work advocating for people with mental illness. The powerful impact of Eric's work portraying someone living with schizophrenia is apparent in this tweet by one of his grateful fans who lives with mental health challenges.

Why is passion, activism and research needed in this realm? Perhaps the need is evidenced by the fact that mental health awareness is so poor that a bright college student being diagnosed with bipolar did not understand that brain surgery is not a viable treatment for mental illness. Or, alternatively, we can look at Jessie's story, as she had to live with debilitating symptoms for many decades before receiving a proper diagnosis and treatment. The urgent need was something that Elyn knew about firsthand when she used the $500k she received from the Genius grant to create an institute at the USC Gould School of Law. While we have made significant progress in understanding these disorders of the brain, there is still a long way to go. Clearly, discrimination and stigma result in a lack of understanding.

Thankfully, people like Elyn Saks, Eric McCormack, Sam Brown, and Jessie Close are bringing discussion of brain health into the light. They are heroes championing these issues. As we sat in the audience during the panel, we were moved when Jessie shared that she was standing before us because her life was a miracle. Given all of her challenges, she spoke of hope and encouraged everyone to " try, try and try again."

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week so let's get to work on rewriting the script with a happier ending of a world with early detection, effective treatment, and open conversations about mental health.