Social Detective

Photography by Rebecca Baxter By Leslie Glass January 1, 2009

Nothing interests me more than the Mysteries of the Mind, so I was delighted to attend this year’s Sunshine from Darkness Gala at the Ritz in January to find out what’s up with research on mental illness and brain disease. I also wanted to be there when Gary Foster, producer of The Soloist, received the International Mental Health Research Organization (IMHRO) 2010 Luminary Award. And then there was the actual performance “Mysteries of the Mind” to see, which was a nice change from the one that goes on in my head. Actors like John Heard, Tess Harper, Samantha Mathis and Gary Dourdan, from the World Theatre of LA, NYC, and the UK, did readings, sang and played music about the demons that haunt people. It was awesome.

Last year 700 people attended the Journey to Wellness symposium at the Van Wezel in the afternoon. This year the number rose to 900. Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, and Gary Foster explained where research is going. The scientific approach to brain disease is terribly technical and not easy for a sociology/psychology-minded writer like me to understand. Rest assured, however, that IMHRO, which is the coalition of two families with a passion for mental health advocacy—Sarasota’s own Bob and Lee Peterson, and Shari and Garen Staglin—is working hard to find a cure, not just alleviate symptoms like meds try to do. This is going to be good news for all those people who just learned from newspaper articles that recent studies suggest antidepressants don’t work except for the really depressed. Of course, doctors and big pharmaceutical companies—and many patients—immediately rebutted that finding.

Some scientists are working to find some kind of genetic engineering, a zap with a power tool or a pill to create a world in which everyone is perky, productive and cured. They don’t put it this way, of course. But if this miracle were ever achieved, it would certainly be the end of literature and the arts.

In any case, don’t you know yet that we’re all nuts and should be talking about it a lot more? Lee and Bob Peterson have been the most tireless mental health advocates for 30 years, ever since their son was diagnosed with schizophrenia, encouraging everyone they know to step up to the plate for a disease our culture has been very reluctant to acknowledge. As with alcoholism, diabetes, heart disease and cancer, there is no family tree free from mental illness. Get over it. Bob Peterson will tell you, “Between one in four and one in five Americans has some form of mental illness.”

The frigid January night of the Sunshine gala was one of the coldest in Florida history. The citrus and strawberry crops were in danger, and the whole state was on alert. There were actual warnings on SNN about covering skin to avoid frostbite. I believe the word “gloves” came up. Many people had never heard that term before, and some had to look it up. Despite the cold, 250 people gathered at the Ritz to raise money and honor Bob and Lee for everything they have done for the cause.

Mike Michalson, president of New College of Florida, Elisabeth and Gil Waters and Joan and Bob Brand were among the first people I saw. Joan has been a volunteer “since day one. I schlep and sell,” she said. Asolo board president Susan Buck and her husband, Jim, looked serious, but maybe they were just freezing.   

Sunshine from Darkness is a special Sarasota story. Lee and Bob Peterson were among the founders of the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD) in 1986, and 10 years later started their own Florida chapter. It’s been a phenomenal success.

Lee says, “There used to be a stigma attached to cancer; now people stand up to acknowledge they’re survivors. Same thing with mental illness. People used to think it was contagious. We couldn’t sit still; we have to work to change that attitude.” She told me that in the last five years the gala “Sunshine from Darkness” has raised more than $5 million for research and awareness.

Co-chairs with Lee Peterson for the evening were daughter Janice Peterson Radder and Emily Walsh Parry. Honorary chairs were Bob and Joyce Tate, Virginia Toulmin and Bob Peterson. Supporters included the Isermann family, Joan Mendel and Stanley Kane, who was escorted by Deb Knowles.   

It wasn’t all serious, though. Circuit Court Judge Rick DeFuria told me about Gloria Moss’s successes on the dance floor. She was once a Copa dancer, and has recently won 75 first place and 13 second places in dance competitions. She lifted her gown to show me her gams.

I remarked that being circuit court judge must be fun. Rick said, “The only happiness in the judge business is when I’m marrying two people who think, on that day, they’re perfectly happy; when I’m doing an adoption; and when someone graduates from Drug Court.” Three ways to happiness isn’t bad.

Ina Schnell introduced me to Bernice Davis, and I talked for a long time about mental illness with Bird Key Yacht Club friends Marty and Dana Kline and Paul and Roz Kline. The Kline brothers were in the teeth business in Connecticut, and Marty is a crack tennis player. Nancy Markle and Sonia and Ted Bloch, who are very close friends of the Petersons and longtime supporters of the cause, sat at my table. Alisa Dale, who sat next to me, had come all the way from St. Paul, Minn., for the symposium and dinner. She does therapy with people with brain trauma and has her own thoughts about mental illness management. “Often it is the most gifted people who are bipolar or clinically depressed,” she said. “They have no filter for stimuli. So even a party like this would be difficult for them. Noise is too loud, too many people. Too much going on. People have to learn what they can handle and what they can’t.” I knew exactly what she meant.

One of the highlights of the evening was seeing the public service announcement, a commercial that director Ron Howard made with people walking through Grand Central Station wearing T-shirts with their diagnosis on them. Glenn Close was with her sister, and both wore T-shirts. The message was, say what you need to say.  

We also saw clips of The Soloist, a remarkable film starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx, about L.A. reporter Steve Lopez’s experience with homeless schizophrenic musician Nathaniel Ayres. Gary Foster was the only producer who wanted to do the film who refused to do a happy ending, and he actually visited the community of people the film was about. Making the film for Foster was a life-changing experience, and the evening reflected that spirit.

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