Kitty Dukakis, an author, mental health advocate and wife of former Massachusetts governor and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, shared her struggles with decades-long depression last week at a program sponsored by the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project (RSIP) and CJP. The event marked yet another milestone in RSIP’s activism—mental health inclusion.
The Dukakises were joined at Temple Emanuel in Newton by their friends Dr. Cynthia Piltch, who is on the faculty of the Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, and Jamie Katz, senior vice president and general counsel for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. The four friends engaged in a discussion moderated by Sarah Abramson, CJP’s vice president of caring, community impact and strategic partnerships.
Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, his wife, Shira, director of the foundation, and his sister, Sharon Shapiro, director of the Boston office, introduced the evening. “Inclusion is fundamental to civil rights, social justice, Jewish values and Jewish continuity,” Jay Ruderman told an audience that filled the temple’s main sanctuary. Ruderman noted that in just three years, the number of synagogues that have partnered for inclusion with the foundation grew from three to 39. Ruderman added that synagogues “can play a vital role in eradicating the silence and the stigma around mental health.”
For her part in breaking through the silence and shame surrounding mental health, Dukakis allowed “60 Minutes” cameras to film one of her electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) sessions for a segment that aired the day before the RSIP event. “I was convinced that people had to see firsthand what this treatment was like and how life-saving it was and is for me,” she said. “ECT saved my life. I would not be here without it.”
Former Gov. Dukakis said that for 17 years his wife took a variety of anti-depressants that had little or no effect in addressing her depression. “My optimism was sorely challenged,” he said. “The medications and therapy that were helpful to other people were not making a difference in Kitty’s situation. She would experience these recurring cycles of depression for no apparent reason. At Mass General, no one suggested she see the ECT specialist. It took all those years to find Dr. Charles Welch, who runs the ECT program at McLean Hospital, which has the most active ECT center in this country. The first treatment Kitty had ended the depression, and I had my wife back.”
Jamie Katz, whom his wife, Cynthia, credits as being her “lifeline,” said, “Depression is a disease that creates enormous pain and devastation. The two worst days of my life were dropping off Cynthia in a locked facility. I wasn’t sure what would happen.”
During her second hospitalization for depression, Piltch and Katz reached out to their rabbi, Howard Jaffe of Temple Isaiah in Lexington. It was also the moment she decided to go public about her depression and the life-saving ECT treatments she was receiving. “It was important to see someone who had received ECT treatments 20 years earlier and come out the other side,” she said.
Both Piltch and the “60 Minutes” episode featuring the Dukakises explained how crucial it is to take away the stigma of ECT’s disturbing portrayal in the Oscar-winning film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Four decades later, ECT is considered a safe and effective treatment for crippling depression.
Abramson emphasized that too many people with mental health challenges “suffer in silence, shame and guilt. Inevitably someone has been through the same thing. If we tell our stories, we’ll find support, love and courage in those stories. This is the takeaway from tonight.”
Piltch ended the evening with a wish: “I want to live to see the day when mental health challenges are treated with the same compassion as cancer is now.” Piltch, who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, noted that it was easier to say she had cancer than to say she was recovering from depression. “We all have a responsibility to fix that,” she added.
Gov. Dukakis added, “If you see something unusual or detect that someone is having a hard time, don’t be silent.”