01/18/2012 10:36 am ET Updated Mar 19, 2012

Actress Patty Duke's Fantasy: A March on Washington

Several years ago, Emmy-award winning actress Patty Duke shared a story with me. Back in 1970, at age 24, she'd walked off the set of a show on which she was guest starring. The actors had been told to take lunch and leave a tired crew behind to fix technical problems. She didn't like the inequity. Outside the studio, she jumped onto a garbage truck with armed soldiers heading for an army base with a studio limo in pursuit to get the actress back to the set on time. As if this weren't disastrous enough, she invited the armed soldiers -- and their friends -- more than 100 men in uniform -- to the studio for lunch. Not surprisingly, she was summoned to Sid Sheinberg's office. While she waited impatiently in his office for him to arrive, she picked up a Mickey Mouse clock he had sitting on his desk and tucked it into her pocket. When Sid Sheinberg arrived, Patty Duke threw his Mickey Mouse clock at him, but not before greeting him with a string of obscenities. No matter that Sid Sheinberg was president of MCA studios and a Hollywood powerhouse. She was angry.

The whole scene could be written off as just another Hollywood actress behaving badly, but that was not the case. Patty Duke had bipolar disorder but was unaware of it.

Nearly 42 years after that episode, and after 20 years of a tumultuous life of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows that characterize manic depression, Patty Duke is balanced. And despite the enticements of euphoria, balanced is a much better place to be, she says. (Sid Sheinberg would probably agree.)

The disorder began for Patty Duke when she was just eight years old. It was then that she began experiencing terrorizing panic attacks. At age 16, when she was starring in The Patty Duke Show, she started having audio hallucinations and insomnia that would go on for days. Then, periods of depression set in, but it was only the depression she would allow her psychiatrists to see. She kept the mania her secret, until one day a psychiatrist witnessed it, gave her a correct diagnosis and prescribed lithium.

I recently caught up with the woman I know as Anna Duke Pearce. As always, she is warm and witty. She is also a woman on a mission. For nearly 25 years, Patty Duke has traveled around the country educating audiences on brain disorders such as hers and speaking out about the stigma that goes along with being diagnosed with a "mental illness" (which I refer to here as brain disorders, because the mind is in the brain). Her wish before she dies is that it becomes ordinary and commonplace to treat these disorders just like it is with the flu. (See Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter's Primary Care Initiative.)

The problem, of course, is the stigma associated with these brain disorders. "When we want to say something negative to somebody we say, 'Aww, you're so crazy.'" She's not suggesting that we drop the terminology from our lexicon. She's saying that as a society we have not yet recognized "how deeply rooted the stigma is."

Like Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, Patty Duke believes that people who are well-known have to battle stigma for all who suffer by being public about their diagnoses as has Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter and Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy (who will be the subject of my next blog) and "demonstrate that we are functioning, not just talking about it," she said.

Patty Duke is also concerned about children and teenagers for whom she says the stigma is 10 times as powerful. Add to that the pain, terror and depression that are the symptoms of many brain disorders. "I remember wanting to give up with all of my heart and soul," she says.

Further, some of the drugs used to treat these brain disorders may pose an increase risk of suicide. We become complacent when people are taking their meds, she says. We think they're fine now. So sometimes we take our eye off the ball and don't see the symptoms that can lead to suicide, "either as a drug reaction or from the illness," she says. "So, even though I'm very big on taking our medicines, it is not the panacea," she warns. To teenagers she says, "Don't give up."

At age 64, Patty Duke is deeply grateful she didn't give up. "But it doesn't mean that everyday I'm walking on air," she notes. Still, she emphasizes that hope actually exists. She also wants people who are suffering from brain disorders to know that they are not the only ones. She meets so many people who think they are the only ones with bipolar.

And it's not just the people with the diagnosis who suffer, Patty Duke points out. Family members get caught up in the illnesses. (The affect of these brain disorders on family members has been well recognized in the Alzheimer's community.)

Patty Duke doesn't know of any other way to reduce stigma other than to continue funding research for treatments. "I never thought I'd be saying this, but I'm coming to believe that without the money we're just spitting in the wind," she says.

Research could move forward "if the government would stop cutting all the funding for mental health research," Patty Duke says. "[I]t is cost effective to treat people with mental illness, and most of the time the treatments work and people return to the workplace, and they pay taxes. Why can't we grasp that simple notion?" she asks.

Patty Duke has addressed Congress on this matter three times.

Because of a lack of funding, there's a lack of organization. There's no networking among community centers, she says, which echoes what Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter told me.

"We can become a force. Right now, we're a bunch of little forces," Patty Duke says.

Patty Duke has a fantasy (and she doesn't think it's a manifestation of her illness, she jokes) of all the people with these disorders marching on Washington, D.C. "There wouldn't be anybody left home," she laughs. "To the uninitiated it would be yet a further demonstration that we're tired of hiding," she adds, and she's serious about that.

In the end it comes down to each individual. "We have to be thoughtful about our votes," Patty Duke says.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Note: I was recently made aware of an organization whose mission it is to fight stigma associated with these types of brain disorders. Bring Change 2 Mind, an anti stigma campaign, was founded by actress Glenn Close and other like-minded organizations. For the next week, I will donate half the profits from my novel, MIND GAMES, to Bring Change 2 Mind. A 5-star rated thriller/suspense at both and, at its heart, MIND GAMES is a story of one small-town journalist's fight against stigma as she battles her own war on terror. You can also donate directly to Bring Change 2 Mind.

For more by S.Z. Berg, click here.

For more on mental health, click here.