Patty Duke recalls struggle with mental illness during TROY’s Helen Keller Lecture

Posted: Thursday, 31 March 2011

TROY—Actress Patty Duke personified courage and strength in her award-winning stage and screen portrayals of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan; she would later draw on that same strength when facing her own struggle with mental illness.

“The example set for me by Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan helps me to find inspiration, strength and determination to carry this message as far and wide as I can,” Duke said.

Duke was the featured speaker during Troy University’s annual Helen Keller Lecture on Thursday, March 31, at the Troy Campus. The Oscar-winning actress discussed her battle with bipolar disorder and her continuing mission to raise awareness about the illness.

Duke said she first began experiencing the symptoms of bipolar disorder in her 20s, but the disease would go undiagnosed for many years. The longer the disease went untreated, the worse her symptoms became, she said, and her struggles with anger and substance abuse would take a heavy toll on her family.

Finally diagnosed by a psychiatrist in 1982, Duke recalled feeling hope that her symptoms could finally be controlled.

“Thank God, was my response,” Duke said. “It has a name! And if it has a name, then other people know about it … and better yet it has a treatment.”

Duke said she is committed to telling her story in the hopes that others struggling quietly with bipolar disorder will seek help.

“[We] travel the country to speak on this topic in the hope that shedding some light in the pocket of fear will in time help to erase the stigma that keeps so many people from getting the help they need and deserve,” Duke said.

Duke said she first became aware of the concept of disability at age 12 when she was asked to play Helen Keller during the Broadway production of “The Miracle Worker.” She recalled connecting with Keller’s sense of frustration as she tried to prepare for the role.

“My response to feeling thwarted and isolated was alternating rage and withdrawal, which I used to my advantage when I portrayed Helen,” she said.

The story of Keller and Sullivan would be a “beacon of hope” for Duke during her own struggle with disability, she said.

“Rarely do we think of mental illness when we think of disability,” Duke said. “Nonetheless, this is a disability that affects millions of us.”

Duke won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Keller in the 1962 film adaptation of “The Miracle Worker” and would go on to portray Sullivan in a 1979 made-for-television remake of the movie. She went on star in “The Patty Duke Show” on ABC from 1963 to 1966.

Now in its 16th year, TROY’s Helen Keller Lecture series is designed to promote awareness of people who excel in their chosen fields despite physical and/or mental limitations.

The lecture is sponsored by Troy University, The Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education, the Alabama State Department of Mental Health, the Alabama State Department of Education, the Alabama State Department of Rehabilitation Services and the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind.

Sullivan Award

Oscar Award-winning actress Patty Duke speaks to Troy University students during the 16th annual Helen Keller Lecture on Thursday. Duke, who in 1982 was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, portrayed Helen Keller in the 1962 film “The Miracle Worker” and later played the role of Keller’s teacher Anne Sullivan in the remake of the film. The Helen Keller Lecture is designed to promote awareness of individuals who have excelled in their chosen fields despite physical or mental challenges.

Sullivan Award

Actress and author Patty Duke displays a clock presented to her by Dr. Jack Hawkins, Jr., Chancellor of Troy University, during a luncheon following the 16th annual Helen Keller Lecture. Duke delivered the lecture Thursday on the Troy Campus.