Patty Duke was known worldwide as an Academy Award-winning actress and iconic TV star. But her greatest legacy may be as a mental health pioneer who brought hope to millions of sufferers at a time when such illnesses were rarely discussed.
“Patty Duke was the first celebrity to disclose she lived with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder in the late '80s. Now, many more people have stepped forward in public life but she was the person who opened the door and really helped to begin breaking down the stigma of mental illness,” says Bob Carolla, a spokesman for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the organization Duke worked with for more than four decades.
Duke died Tuesday at 69 of an infection caused by an abdominal rupture. Her prodigious show business career spanned six decades, during which she appeared in scores of films, made-for-TV movies, and also on the stage. Most recently, she served as a spokesperson for Social Security and had a starring role in “Power in the Air,” her final movie, which will be released next year.
But her real legacy may be her work in raising awareness of mental illness, which began with the publication of her autobiography, “Call me Anna,” in which she revealed that she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, notes Carolla.
“Her first book, ‘Call Me Anna,’ came out in 1987, and a documentary based on it came out two years later. After the showing, our office got thousands of phone calls from people wanting more information about mental illness,” says Carolla.
Duke followed that book with a second, “Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic Depressive Illness,” which was a more fact-based book explaining the disorder that also had an enormous impact, Carolla said.
Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. But the disorder can be successfully treated with lithium, a mood stabilizing drug, and other therapies.
Duke credited the treatment for saving her from a life that had been spiraling out of control, as she dealt with depression, addiction, suicidal thoughts, and impulsive behavior. The impacts of the condition were so profound that one of her marriages lasted just a matter of days, she noted.
After treatment, Duke won three Emmys, served as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and lived contentedly for more than a quarter-century with her husband, Michael Pearce, until her death this week.
“When the show about Patty Duke aired, NAMI was only about 10 years old, and there was Patty Duke, citing us as a source of education and support, so we had a fairly close relationship with her,” says Carolla.
Duke also joined with NAMI and the National Institute of Mental Health to help get more funding for mental illness, including lobbying Congress, he says.
But it was not only Duke’s courage in going public but also the role model she provided that made her so invaluable, says Carolla.
He cited an example in 2006, when Duke appeared at a NAMI press conference to bring media attention to a report the organization was releasing on the state of mental healthcare.
“She opened the program by telling her own story, using her celebrity to bring media to the cause,” he says.
That year, NAMI gave Duke its Distinguished Service Award, which is the organization’s highest honor. As part of the award ceremony, a short film was shown about Duke’s life and, in arranging it, Carolla got to know both Duke and her husband, who worked very much as a team.
"Patty Duke had so much of an impact, and set off so many ripples in people’s lives, that there is no way anyone could ever adequately measure it,” he adds
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