At the Prism Awards, Hollywood Honors Accurate Portrayals of Mental illness

Claire Danes plays a woman with bipolar disorder on Homeland
Claire Danes plays a woman with bipolar disorder on Homeland

Hollywood has a checkered history of covering mental health and substance abuse, reaching bottom with Nightmare on Elm Street. A young Johnny Depp played the killer as a schizophrenic, imprinting that image of mental illness on millions.

To counteract such stigma, the Entertainment Industry Council puts on an awards show to recognize writers, producers and performers for "the accurate depiction of substance abuse and mental illness." On April 25, the 17th annual PRISM Awards were held at the Beverly Hills Hotel, with an airing of the show set for September on FX.

MC Shadoe Stevens
MC Shadoe Stevens
Michael Goldstein

MC Shadoe Stevens kicked it off with a harrowing but hilarious description of his pre-recovery days, when he went to see "Dr. Lax" to get the prescription half of his drug needs. The 350-pound physician may have used his stomach as a desk, but came through with Tuinals, Seconals and Quaaludes. Surveying the damage from this, plus the coke, LSD, meth and Steven's daily case of beer to "take the edge off," another doctor told him, "If you're lucky, you're going to die."

This year, those nominated for the "art of making a difference" included films like Flight and Silver Linings Playbook, which won eight Academy nominations for its portrayal of a young man dealing with bipolar disorder. TV shows like Go On, Elementary, Nurse Jackie, and Homeland were also recognized. Days of Our Lives won for a storyline exploring Alzheimer's, which disproportionately affects women. Reality TV was also well represented, with shows like Celebrity Rehab, Hoarders, and the MTV documentary Demi Lovato: Stay Strong.

Stay Strong won, for showing Lovato learning to deal with her eating disorder and bipolar diagnosis. Lovato, 19, said in Stay Strong, "I thought that writing seven songs in one night was normal. I thought that staying up until 5:30 in the morning is normal... My mind was racing and it's an ongoing thing and I still learn how to cope with it."

Acknowledgement of mental illness by stars like Lovato and Catherine Zeta-Jones goes a long way towards dealing with stigma, said Judson Rothschild, a former actor and author of Snap Out of It, a guide to overcoming panic and anxiety, in an interview at the event. "There's not one actor who doesn't have performance anxiety. Underneath it is the fear they're going crazy, and directors and producers will think that this person is difficult." But he feels younger people are much more open about mental illness. "We're breaking the barrier."

Actress Linda Cardellini agreed. "I think the stigma is getting less and less," she said in an interview. "Everything is an open book." Cardellini (who stars in Mad Men this season) won for best performance in a feature film for Return, beating out Bradley Cooper and Denzel Washington. Her character was a troubled war veteran with mental health and substance abuse issues. Yet portraying someone with such problems is a feast for the actor, she says. "A great part mean your character goes through a lot."

Katey Sagal's win for Sons of Anarchy was a high point of the show, with Married with Children co-star Ed O'Neill as a presenter. Sagal's comment "I wouldn't be standing here if it wasn't for recovery -- I've been sober for 26 years" brought the house down. So did her line, "I'm on a show where every character needs to get sober!"

The event lacked the often alcohol-induced hilarity of the Golden Globes. As befitting an event celebrating recovery, no wine was served at the tables, although a cash bar at Beverly Hills Hotel prices was provided as a concession to the thirsty.

The show was also somewhat celebrity-challenged, with Dr. Drew Pinsky, Ed O'Neill and Sagal arguably the biggest names.

Pinsky took home two awards. One was for Dr. Drew on Call, the other for Rehab with Dr. Drew, now notorious for the five cast members who've died over the last two years. But as Pinsky pointed out in an acceptance speech, addictions are "chronic recurrent's not like taking a car through a car wash."

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