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Documentary delves where few want to go

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 26, 2001


Producer Liisa Hyvarinen remembers clearly what convinced her television needed a serious documentary on suicide.

Producer Liisa Hyvarinen remembers clearly what convinced her television needed a serious documentary on suicide.

Her name was Shasta.

A Rottweiler that plunged nearly 200 feet from the Sunshine Skyway bridge with owner John P. Radd in 1998, Shasta survived her master's suicide to become a white-hot focus of local media attention.

But thanks to media outlets' general reticence in reporting on suicides as news events -- often, to avoid encouraging copycats -- journalists wound up discussing the dog more than the owner.

That rankled Hyvarinen, an executive producer at WTSP-Ch. 10, whose own father committed suicide in 1983 (one of her sisters has also tried to end her life twice).

"By putting the emphasis on the dog, you've trivialized the person," adds the producer, who had already applied for a special journalism fellowship to explore mental health issues sponsored by former President Jimmy Carter's wife, Rosalynn. "Any time someone hears how my father died, it immediately (overshadows) everything else he's done."

Hyvarinen earned one of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism, receiving $10,000 to assemble Silent Screams -- an hourlong look at suicide, the clinical depression that often prompts it, the warning signs and possible treatments.

"Historically, people with mental illness have not been portrayed well in the media," said Dr. Gregroy Friccione, director of the Carter Center's mental health program, which administers the Rosalynn Carter fellowships. "We felt one way to reduce stigma was to increase accurate reporting about mental health issues."

In one interview segment, David Smith -- whose wife Susan drowned their two sons in a nationally-known murder case -- explains how he considered suicide, helped his father recover from a suicide attempt and dealt with his stepmother's suicide.

Later, African-American parents talk about their children who committed suicide and the reticence of some to confront the growing suicide rate among young black men. Survivors of suicide -- meaning, the relatives and loved ones left behind by someone who has succeeded -- talk about the clues they missed.

Famed 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace proves the show's centerpiece, explaining how clinical depression nearly drove him to suicide in the mid 1980s.

"The "D' word is what the "C' word used to be, when people would (whisper) cancer . . . (but) never wanted to use the word," said Wallace, who talked with Hyvarinen about the stigma of depression in May 2000 while in Palm Harbor for a Morton Plant Mease Foundation fundraiser.

"Depression is a strange disease . . . nothing means anything," said the 83-year-old journalist, who now curbs his depression with medication. "You want to care about your kids, your grandchildren and your job. (But) it envelops you."

According to U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, who also appears in the documentary and has mounted an aggressive campaign to educate Americans on this issue, the facts are sobering: 85 people die from suicide each day -- up to 31,000 each year -- while 500,000 people annually require emergency room treatment following attempts.

Hyvarinen faced her own struggles in developing Silent Screams, working a full-time job at WTSP during much of the production and spending an additional $8,000 of her own to complete the project.

Though fellows are expected to finish their work in a year, she has spent about two years on the program -- sidelined for two months last year by stomach problems. WTSP also switched news directors while she was developing the broadcast.

"It is not a mainstream program . . . (but my hope is that people who are not aware of this issue will watch it, too," said Jim Church, news director at WTSP, which will pre-empt two episodes of the lackluster comedy Ladies Man to air Silent Screams.

Anchors Reginald Roundtree and Sue Zelenko host the program, which also features Hyvarinen on camera.

"People say this happened to my aunt, uncle or sister . . . (and) they've been carrying this burden in silence for years," says the producer. "Maybe now they'll see it's okay to talk about it."

At a glance

Silent Screams airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday on WTSP-Ch. 10. Grade: B.

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