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Celebrity Triggers Tumult Over Psychiatric Care: Did the News Media Make Things Worse?

Celebrity Triggers Tumult Over Psychiatric Care: Did the News Media Make Things Worse?

Psychiatric Times September 2005
Issue 10

Take years of research, clinical observations, technological advancements and scientific discovery, and then subject them to derision and skepticism during a celebrity rant that's part of a promotional tour for an upcoming movie, and suddenly it's a media event. Sounds odd, but it describes what happened after Tom Cruise decided to take on psychiatry while hawking his new movie, War of the Worlds, and the news media decided to turn the story into the latest shouting match for talking heads. While the episode aired some important issues about mental health care's benefits and limitations, it also confirmed that stigma is alive and well.

In a way, the prime-time conflict epitomized the marketplace of ideas that a democracy with a First Amendment should generate. Hollywood beauty Brooke Shields has a baby, suffers postpartum depression, seeks treatment (including taking a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) and ultimately transforms into the loving mother she's always imagined. She also becomes an author, whose sentimental memoir Down Came the Rain (Hyperion) described her experience.

Then, Hollywood heartthrob Tom Cruise, a long-time Scientologist who--true to his religious principles--abhors psychiatry, takes to the TV airwaves to pout over psychiatric treatment, insisting that it should be criminalized and that Shields endangered her health and undermined her acting career by seeking treatment following the birth of her child. "She doesn't know what these drugs are and for her to promote it is irresponsible," he told Access Hollywood.

If the dispute had stayed grist for the entertainment gossip mill, the uproar likely would have faded as quickly as yesterday's blockbuster. But when the mainstream news media stepped into the fray, the controversy escalated beyond a mere actors' tiff. Ultimately, even the venerable New York Times chimed in, publishing an editorial by Shields in which she defended herself against Cruise's onslaught.

During an interview on NBC's Today Show on June 24, Cruise laid into interviewer Matt Lauer, accusing him of not understanding psychiatry or its history. Seemingly cowed, Lauer ultimately yielded. "It's very impressive to listen to you," Lauer complimented Cruise, "because clearly you've done the homework and you know the subject."

Whether actors, particularly those with a religious agenda, can authoritatively comment on a field as broad as psychiatry and mental health is an important question, particularly when--in Cruise's case--it triggered appearances on prime-time television of "experts" who contended that vitamins and exercise are a better option than psychiatric care.


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