MINDS ON THE EDGE: Still Pertinent Four Years Later

Justice Stephen Breyer and Dr. Eric Kandel at Minds on the Edge

Justice Stephen Breyer and Dr. Eric Kandel at Minds on the Edge

FROM MY FILES FRIDAY    I’ll be speaking in Iowa in a few months and also moderating a Minds on the Edge panel. I’ll present a scenario about a college student in the midst of  a psychotic break. What would happen to that student in Iowa?  Panel members generally include a parent, consumer, law enforcement officer, judge, psychiatrist and mental health provider. 

This format was used effectively in the Minds on the Edge telecast shown on PBS in October 2009. In this January 2010 blog, I  gave readers peek at how the program evolved. Sadly, PBS hasn’t aired Minds on the Edge for several years. That’s unfortunate because the issues raised by the show are still pertinent.


Not long after CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, was published, I received a telephone call from Arthur Singer who invited me to lunch in Manhattan.

Singer was concerned about how jails and prisons have become our new mental asylums.  While I appreciated his interest, I couldn’t afford to fly to New York just to have lunch with him. But he was persistent. He also told me that he would pay for my flight.

When the taxi dropped me off at one of New York’s most exclusive private clubs, I began to get a feel for who this guy was.  Arthur Singer was a gatekeeper with the Alfred P.  Sloan Charitable Foundation.

There were about a half dozen other people at the lunch, which began with Arthur talking about how he wanted to raise public awareness of issues documented in CRAZY. I soon found myself arguing with a refined looking gentleman about whether a psychopath in prison was born with a brain defect that made him incapable of recognizing evil or whether he chose to be that way and was responsible for his actions. When our debate got a bit heated, the fellow sitting next to me leaned over and whispered: “Do you know who you are arguing with?”

When I said that I didn’t, he replied, “That’s Eric Kandel, one of the country’s most prominent psychiatrists and neuroscientists. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2000.”

I felt pretty silly — trying to lecture Dr. Kandel on the workings of the brain.

Arthur Singer got the Sloan Foundation to put seed money into developing a documentary based on my book, but that  program never got off the ground. Singer, however, is not a fellow who gives up. I’m not sure how he and Richard Kilberg, the president of the Fred Friendly Seminars got together, but I am thrilled that they did.

I first heard about their joint idea when Richard called and explained that the Fred Friendly Seminars wanted to do an hour long program about mental illness. I already was familiar with the shows because I had watched earlier ones on PBS. I knew the seminars featured a panel of national experts discussing a hypothetical case, rather than just having a bunch of talking heads delivering speeches. The idea of being a participant on a group discussing mental illness excited me.

What I didn’t know was how good the end product would be or the caliber of panelists that Richard and Barbara Margolis, his associate at Fred Friendly, would recruit. On the day of the filming, I found myself sitting across from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and other dynamic leaders in the mental health movement, such Sam Tsemberis, whose a driving force behind Housing First, and my good friend, Miami Judge Stephen Leifman, who got me into the jail in Miami for my book and has become a national spokesman for stopping the use of jails and prisons as mental facilities. Consumer Frederick Frese, ethicist Arthur Caplan, psychiatrist Dr. Tracey Skale, as well as Elyn Saks, author and winner of a “genius award” were there too.  The list went on-and- on.

As a young  journalist I had greatly admired Fred Friendly, the famed CBS newsman and president of CBS news, when news at that network was still being run by reporters rather than celebrities. I’d happened to meet Mr. Friendly at an airport in, of all places, Rapid City, South Dakota. When we filmed Minds on the Edge, I met his widow, Ruth Friendly, who is carrying on her husband’s dedication to producing thought-provoking television programs.

If you have not watched Minds on the Edge, you should. Some colleges are using it as a teaching tool and NAMI is encouraging its chapters to show it. Please spread the word.

Occasionally, during the broadcast, the camera pans the crowd and there, sitting quietly in a front seat is Art Singer, content to be in the shadows. There would have been no show without him and his financial string pulling.

Oh, something else.  Dr. Kandel also is a panelist on the show — only this time, I was smart enough not to argue with him!

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. We will never give up. Ever. says

    Those who have declared war against our basic human right to own our bodies, those who advocate forced drugging laws such as AOT, I want you to know we will continue to fight for our basic human dignity in the face of your vicious violence against us.

    You can censor, delete comments, all you like, but the proof of our continue success in the fight to disarm forced psychiatry is more evident by the day.

    • Hi! Some years ago I participated w/ an anti-psychiatry group and even slept out on the lawn of the state capitol! I was off medication and thought I could do it all! Some people can keep their mental illness in remission w/ out drugs or psychiatric intervention. However,
      some prefer to self-medicate w/ illegal substances or alcohol. Still, others find homeopathic relief by various methods. I met people in that group who were angry, some who claimed to have been forced into shock treatments and others who had been forced medications that they were either allergic to or that caused permanent damage.
      Some managed to live healthily w/ alternative mental health support.
      You have a valid point. I think the bottom line is this –
      Either control your perceived or admitted mental illness however you choose’ OR submit to the rights of society to be protected from violence and harm from the mentally ill. Psychiatry will never force itself on you, if you are peacefully going about your business.
      Basic human dignity works both ways.
      Respect yourself and stay well, and others will respect you for it.
      If you can’t, basic human dignity dictates that they do it for you!
      Its not a war – its life.

  2. Terri Wasilenko says

    My family has seen Minds on the Edge because we picked it up three years ago at a NAMI NYS Educational Conference. Currently, contacts at Auburn City Court have the DVD. I need to remind them to pass it on to others in the local criminal justice system.

    Take care. Happy Easter to you and your family.

    Terri & Bart and Chris

  3. I appreciate getting to hear more about the backstory of the creation of Minds on the Edge which is such an extraordinary production. I wish it would be shown frequently but it’s helpful for people to know that they can view it online.

    I’m hoping that your upcoming Minds on the Edge panel discussion will also be available to view online….if it is available, I hope you’ll post links.