Gleeful for GLEE! Mental Health First Aid and the Death of A Friend.

A few weeks ago, my daughter, Traci, put together a short video that showed how persons with mental disorders are often the victims of prejudice, stupidity and stigma. One of the most offensive clips came from the popular FOX Television show, GLEE. In that episode, the talented Gwyneth Paltrow dressed as Mary Todd Lincoln, announced that she had bipolar disorder, and proclaimed that a teapot was talking to her.  I was disgusted.

GLEE redeemed itself last week in what was one of the most poignant exchanges about mental illness that I have seen on mainstream television. If you missed the clip, here it is. It is three minutes long and I would urge you to watch it.

I know some readers will be upset because the psychiatrist in the clipping prescribes medication. We all know that it takes more than popping a pill into a person’s mouth to help them fully recover. But I want to congratulate the script writers for tackling the issue of mental illness in such a realistic way. I complain a lot about stigmatizing ads and television shows that degrade persons with mental disorders. It’s terrific to watch a program that actually helps educate viewers. Kudos for GLEE.


I am speaking Tuesday in San Diego at the 41st National Council on Mental Health and Addictions Conference whose headliner is former President Bill Clinton. One reason why I am looking forward to speaking is because the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare has been promoting a program since 2008 called Mental Health First Aid. So far, more than 10,000 people have undergone mental health first aid training and there are now 800 instructors in 40 states teaching people about the signs and symptoms of mental illness.

When I was in high school, all seniors were required to take a basic first aid course . I still remember the slogan: Knowledge Replaces Fear. We learned basic life saving techniques, but there was never any mention of mental health. That course helped me tremendously, especially when one of my children was injured during a sport. I am eager to learn more about Mental Health First Aid so that I can write about it in future blogs.


I received sad news this week when I learned that my friend, Marie Deans, had died from cancer at age 70 in Charlottesville, Va.  Known as the “angel of death row,” Marie was a tireless opponent of the death penalty and was personally responsible for saving the lives of at least two condemned men. Earl Washington Jr., a poor, illiterate and mentally disabled black man was convicted of raping and murdering a Virginia woman in 1982. He could not afford an appeals lawyer and Virginia would not pay for one. Marie took up his case, got lawyers to prepare appeals and eventually uncovered DNA evidence that proved Washington was innocent. Without Marie, Washington would have been put to death. She also saved Joseph Giattatano from execution after he was sent to death row for a double murder and rape. At the time, he was a 21 year-old drifter and drug addict. His sentence was modified to life in prison only hours before he was scheduled for electrocution after Marie found evidence of misconduct, coerced confessions and sloppy police work. One of her frustrations was that Giattatano was not released. Marie died believing he is innocent.  

I first met Marie and her youngest son, Robert, after my book CIRCUSMSTANIAL EVIDENCE was published and its main character was freed from Alabama’s death row. One of the reasons why her advocacy was so impassioned was because Marie was a victim before she became an activist. Her mother-in-law, Penny Deans, was murdered by an escaped convict. Marie said the police promised her that they’d “fry” the bastard who’d murdered Penny. Marie had replied, “don’t kill him for me.” She explained that his death would simply be another murder.

With no financial backing, Marie came to Virginia and began visiting death row. She recruited lawyers for death row inmates and watched more than 30 executions. The men who were put to death asked her to be there with them because she was often their only friend. The last time that I spoke to Marie, she was broke. She apologized for not sending me a Christmas Card. During her career as an advocate, she never earned more than $17,000 per year. Yet, she left quite a legacy. Among other things, she founded Murder Victims’ Families For Reconcilitation, a group that includes many families whose loved ones were murdered by persons with mental illnesses.

I admired her greatly and will miss her.

Virginia, which has the distinction of being second only to Texas in executing more prisoners than any other state, is poorer because of her death.

My former colleague and friend, Colman McCarthy, wrote a tribute to Marie in the Washington Post that is worth reading.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Thanks Pete. Refreshing to see Mental illness treated sensitively in such a high profile format. Also, the tireless advocacy of your friend is just amazing to read. I wonder how many times she was tempted to just give it a rest, especially after witnessing another citizen-sanctioned death. It’s hard to believe people like her exist. If we all just took up even the tiniest piece of her work, the world would be a much better place.

  2. Pete, thanks for the kind words on mom. I tried to ring you but I had a wrong number… I’ll drop you an email sometime, and maybe we can get together. Best, Robert Deans