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PBS documentary offers a rare look at what happens in clinical care

November 29, 2016
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Sigurd Ackerman, MD, Silver Hill Hospital

So much of what goes on in an addiction treatment facility or psychiatric hospital remains shrouded in mystery for most of the public, and it can be argued that this serves to reinforce stigma. An installment of the PBS documentary series “Visionaries” is now offering a rare glimpse into the everyday work of clinical professionals, with Silver Hill Hospital serving as the scenic backdrop.

Series producers initially contacted the nationally recognized addiction and mental health facility in New Canaan, Conn., last year; the episode, titled Only in the Darkness Can You See the Stars, has aired in a handful of Michigan and Texas markets and is being gradually rolled out to other PBS stations across the country.

“They visited us before they made the decision [to feature Silver Hill],” hospital president and medical director Sigurd Ackerman, MD, tells Addiction Professional. “They were impressed with the range of treatments and types of treatment we can offer.”

The aired installment emphasizes the point that few behavioral health facilities around the country are equipped to address serious co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders in a patient.

The documentary features comments from a diversity of Silver Hill staff and board members, personal stories from former patients whose lives were transformed from treatment, and scenes of Silver Hill's picturesque and serene campus setting. But the most noteworthy part of the presentation could be the depiction of a psychodrama session in which a patient, guided by a social worker and two fellow patients, processes feelings around his relationship with his father.

The session depicts the emotion around the therapeutic experience and illustrates the supportive role of the clinician. It is meant to educate and not sensationalize, giving the viewer a rare opportunity to understand what a form of therapy actually looks like.

“What you saw was that the experience was certainly impactful and meaningful to the patients,” Ackerman says. “The clinician's role is not perceived as anything but supportive.”

Respectful approach

Actor and “Visionaries” host Sam Waterston says in the documentary's opening segment that Silver Hill “serves as a model for what is possible.” A board member emphasizes the kind, non-stigmatizing approach of its clinical staff, and Ackerman discusses the resources spent on creating a physical environment conducive to healing.

He also describes the hospital's evolution from its 1930s roots as a facility that mainly assisted people with mild forms of mental illness. As advanced therapeutic techniques developed, Silver Hill established an acute-care unit in the 1980s and then purchased single-family homes that now house its transitional-living programs. Ackerman explains in the documentary that the largely self-pay transitional housing now essentially subsidizes the services offered in the acute-care setting.

Ackerman says that his impression in seeing the final documentary revolved around the power of the patient comments about the impact their experiences had.

Bearing witness to these experiences clearly has had an impact on Silver Hill staff as well. Clinicians interviewed for the documentary discussed feeling energized when patients experience a breakthrough. One social worker said she cannot imagine that there are many other careers that are as challenging and rewarding at the same time.

The documentary is scheduled to air in Connecticut public television markets in January. Click here for updates on upcoming airings in other markets.