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Mysteries of Mental Illness

Explore the attempts throughout history to unravel the mysteries of mental illness.

  • Fred Vigeant
Watch Mysteries of Mental Illness beginning Tuesday, June 22 at 9pm on WITF. You can stream WITF TV live on our website and through the PBS Video app on Roku, Apple TV and iPhone and Android smartphones. The program is also available on-demand through the PBS Video app.


Throughout history, we’ve grappled with difficult questions about mental illness: What causes it? How can it be treated? Explore the evolution of our understanding and the dramatic attempts across generations to unravel the mysteries of mental illness. Watch Mysteries of Mental Illness four part series on WITF. Parts one and two broadcast June 22 and parts three and four will broadcast on June 23:

  • One – Evil or Illness? An examination of ancient conceptions of mental illness and the establishment of psychiatry with the rise of Sigmund Freud. For much of history, people living with schizophrenia, like aspiring astrophysicist turned mental health activist Cecilia McGough, would have been seen as either prophet or devil. Yet today, despite struggling with persistent hallucinations and delusions, Cecilia helps hundreds around the world find support and community through her organization “Students with Psychosis.” Other current-day profiles include Lorina Gutierrez, who was committed to a psychiatric hospital until her psychosis was revealed to be a result of an ovarian tumor, and Virginia Fuchs, an Olympics-bound boxer living with OCD.
  • Two – Who‘s Normal? Traces the dramatic fight in the second half of the 20th century to develop mental illness standards rooted in empirical science rather than dogma, including the evolution of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual). It is today’s so-called “Bible of Psychiatry,” despite what many acknowledge are its deep and fundamental flaws. Characters include Ryan Mains, a former firefighter and Iraq veteran struggling with PTSD, Mia Yamamoto, born in a Japanese internment camp, who became California’s first openly transgender lawyer, throughout her life resisting being labeled as having a ‘mental illness’; and Michael, a Harlem based pastor and healer who lives with his own depressive disorder. In this episode, we’ll learn how science and societal factors are deeply entwined with our ever-shifting definitions and diagnoses of mental health and illness.
  • Three –Rise and Fall of the Asylum – Mass confinement in mental asylums (some holding up to 19,000 people) and extreme treatments – from lobotomy to coma therapy – were standard treatment for mental illness in the United States until a few decades ago. Today, the nation’s largest de-facto mental health facility is Cook County Jail in Chicago, where more than one third of inmates have a mental health diagnosis. As Sheriff Tom Dart attempts to tackle this crisis head-on through a range of mental health treatments and programs, we’ll meet the detainees whose lives hang in the balance and discover the harsh realities of care both in and out of jail.
  • Four – The New Frontiers – A look at today’s most cutting-edge treatments, based on the latest scientific understanding of the biological underpinnings of mental illness, with profiles of patients undergoing a variety of vanguard treatments. These include: Deep Brain Stimulation surgery; Infusions of Ketamine – the first new psychiatric drug in decades; and modern electro-convulsive therapy. Alongside cutting-edge treatments, one of the most urgent fronts on the battle against mental illness is the fight for inclusion – a society more open to all kinds of minds and behavior, free from stigma, based on the understanding that mental health exists on a spectrum, and on respect for each individual’s right to choose what’s right for them.

Watch Mysteries of Mental Illness Tuesday June 22 and Wednesday June 23 beginning at 9pm on WITF.  All four parts are available for on-demand viewing through the PBS Video app.

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