'The Infinite Voyage' gives mental illness a face that is difficult to forget

December 17, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Do you hear voices?" the doctor asks.

"No, I never heard voices," the patient says. "But God communicates to me through situations and circumstances. I'm smoking too much, and God increased the motor noise of the cars so that he could control my smoking."

The man making the link between smoking and God is a "prisoner of the brain," according to the producers of "The Infinite Voyage," a PBS documentary series on the human mind and mental illness.

Tonight's report, titled "Prisoners of the Brain," airs at 10 on MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and features the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center at Catonsville and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine as two sites where important work is being done to help victims of schizophrenia, manic depression and drug addiction.

Some of the report's best moments come at the start of the hour during the segment taped at the research center at Spring Grove Hospital in Catonsville. Viewers are introduced there to a schizophrenic patient named Laura. The woman's mother tells viewers about Laura before schizophrenia. While she talks, we are shown a snapshot of a what appears to be a bright, happy, healthy young woman with the whole world before her.

Then, we are shown a snapshot with a very different looking person in it -- Laura after the onset of schizophrenia. We hear Laura herself talk about the illness -- both lucidly and at other times without any lucidity at all.

The result of the mother's words and the before-and-after is that for the rest of the show mental illness has a face -- a face that is hard to forget.

The report alternates between the suffering of patients and the rays of hope held out by discoveries in the laboratory. New drugs and chemicals that block and accelerate the actions in brain cells are explained. There are some surprises: For example, the producers show how the effects of angel dust (PCP) led to a new treatment for schizophrenia.

Overall though, the report suffers from its reverential tone toward medicine. It is a no-warts-at-all celebration of medical research. But there are those moments of connection between viewers and victims like Laura or the man who links his smoking to God. They are worth the watch.

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