NORWALK, Conn. (AP) — Alexandra Zerzan felt unsafe.
Unsafe outside, unsafe in her home, in her bed. Unsafe in her own head. But if she talked about that feeling, she feared it might open up a wound too deep to repair.
“That feeling of wanting it to end, wanting the pain to go away and disappear, wanting to disappear myself, I felt like if I started to talk about it this hole would rip open and everything would fall out and I wouldn’t know how to put it back together again,” Zerzan said.
Zerzan, a former patient and current transitional living liaison at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, discusses her battle with mental illness and the stigma surrounding it in a new PBS documentary on the topic. Silver Hill Hospital and several of its current and former patients are featured in the PBS series “Visionaries,” was set to air Jan. 7 at 7 p.m. and Jan 8 at 11 a.m. on Connecticut Public Television.
“I felt safe behind those doors,” Zerzan said of Silver Hill. “When I walked into the acute care unit, that was at the point that I surrendered a little bit and I started to feel like I wasn’t bad. I was just in a lot of pain, and I needed that pain to be shared by other people because I couldn’t carry it by myself anymore.”
The hospital was contacted about filming the episode, titled “Only in the Darkness Can You See the Stars” in April 2015. “Visionaries,” a documentary series profiling nonprofit organizations, found Silver Hill Hospital in their research and wanted to profile the institution.
“What they were interested in is seeing what we do, the kind of people we treat, how we treat them and be able to interview some patients who have been here in the past and listen to their descriptions of their experiences,” said Dr. Sigurd Ackerman, president and medical director of Silver Hill.
The show’s host Sam Waterston opens the episode by introducing Silver Hill and praising the New Canaan-based nonprofit for its commitment to treating not only mental illness, but the stigma surrounding it.
“The stigma of mental illness often can be as debilitating as the illness itself. It can extinguish the one thing that can motivate someone to get help: hope,” Waterston says. “The mission of Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Connecticut is to shatter that stigma. They treat people with mental illnesses like people.”
Ackerman said people often don’t seek treatment because they feel ashamed, they believe there’s no point in treatment or they believe treatments won’t be effective.
“When people have a mental illness that is significant enough to be in the hospital, people view themselves as having failed in some way,” Ackerman said.
Though Silver Hill’s efforts to combat the stigma are significant, Ackerman said it is just a small part of a nationwide effort to combat the negative connotations for mental illness. He said celebrities and other prominent people becoming more outspoken about their own struggles have helped to normalize the issues and encouraged many to seek help. He cited the late Carrie Fisher, best known for her role as Princess Leia in the Star Wars franchise, and her openness about struggling with bipolar disorder.
“Public figures have been willing to talk openly about illness and recovery, and that’s certainly happening more,” Ackerman said, adding the forthrightness of public figures often encourages others to seek help for their own mental illnesses and addictions.
Ackerman said there is shame associated with every type of mental illness from depression to addiction to psychotic disorders, which not only discourages people from seeking help, but convinces them they cannot be helped. With the help of documentaries like “Visionaires” and work to make resources and treatment as available and as normal as possible, he said great strides can be made in changing the discussion around mental illness.
“They were interested in showing patients who got better, they were interested in showing that you can get better from addiction and from mental illness,” Ackerman said. “That’s a good message to share, and I hope it helps.”
The episode gives viewers a look at the Silver Hill campus, as well as a chance to hear the stories of some of the patients treated there.
Ackerman said the film crew was helpful in guiding the staff and patients through the interviews, many of whom had never been questioned on camera before.
“They were good,” he said. “They were very helpful and competent. There were several of us interviewed and they babied us through the thing.”
Ackerman also said he’s happy with the way the episode turned out, especially the way it highlights the hospital’s former patients and its welcoming environment.
“I think the thing that really stands out is their interviews with former patients,” he said. “They were interested in people who’ve been well, but they did some very excellent interviews of people who have a story to tell … These are people who came across as really needing help, getting good help and doing well as a result.”
Ackerman said this is the first time the hospital has done something like this, and he’s hoping the show will bring a better understanding of mental illness and what good treatment looks like.
“I think it is helpful in the sense that if people don’t know what being in a good hospital is like, it helps them to understand,” he said. “I think it’s important for people to know that contrary to a lot of misinformation people have about mental illness and its treatments these days, treatments can be very effective. People can do well and resume their lives and continue from there.”
Information from: The Hour
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