USF Health Psychiatry- Turning Local Tragedy into Help for Community

April 3, 2008, University of South Florida, College of Medicine, Tampa Bay. Led by the Chair of Psychiatry, a USF Health team of experts joined forces with the NBC’s News Channel 8 to raise awareness about depression. The community effort was organized in memory of News Channel 8 meteorologist John Winter who committed suicide last April. The tragedy garnered statewide attention because Winter had battled his depression almost in secret – living a double-life, so to speak. The popular local celebrity was known for his sense of humor and community activism. His suicide and subsequent news of his battle with depression sent shockwaves across a community of viewers, friends and family. Dr. Francisco Fernandez, Chair of Psychiatry at the USF College of Medicine, and the team of USF Health volunteers were determined to turn this local tragedy into a positive. The result was a “Depression Awareness Phone Bank” of 10 phones, simultaneously receiving hundreds of calls during the special broadcast by NBC in Tampa Bay.

No shortage of calls…
In two hours, approximately 1,000 calls poured into the USF Health Phone Bank. Fernandez noted “We were not there as mental health professionals. We were there to provide information to callers on mood disorders, suicide and prevention.” Their goals were simple he says. “In John’s memory, to educate the Tampa community to distinguish among depression, stress related issues, and the expected ups and downs of everyday life,” said Fernandez. “During the time we were live, we took callers’ names and addresses and will be forwarding educational materials, brochures, and information on community resources in their area.”

Standing amid phone bank operators, Journalist Irene Maher introduces her segment “Best Kept Secret”.

News Channel 8’s Medical Correspondent Irene Maher, a personal friend of the late Winter, presents an ongoing series of special reports on depression known as “Best Kept Secret”. The series was launched after Winter’s suicide on April 3, 2007. Included in her segments throughout the year and in phone bank conversations on the 1 year anniversary of Winter’s suicide – critical information to help a friend or family member suffering from depression and/or potentially suicidal. “Referrals were provided to the crisis center when appropriate.” noted Fernandez.

“As much as our callers wished that they could change history and still have John Winters with us, they all had a single objective in calling Channel 8 – they did not want anyone else to have to deal with the same pain. For a short two hours on the anniversary of his death, we were taking their calls and we all had the same goal,” said Fernandez.

At right, Dr. Frank Fernandez, Chair of Psychiatry, USF College of Medicine.

Other mental health professionals from across the Tampa Bay area helped field calls at the USF Health Phone Bank. “We had 10 phones going and got 1000 calls! We are starting to plan for next year with a walk and vigil. Mr. Winter’s family was most grateful,” said Fernandez, who, in an email to USF Health colleagues said “In true NBA spirit, thanks for the assist!”

The USF Health Team
For the April 3, 2008 News Channel 8 special broadcast, the USF Health delegation included folks from the USF colleges of Medicine, Nursing and Public Health – Dr. Francisco Fernandez, Chairman of Psychiatry, USF College of Medicine; Scott Barnett, USF College of Medicine, Dept. of Psychiatry; Allison Edmonds, USF College of Nursing, Clinical Collaborative; Mark Oldhman, USF College of Medicine Student; and Elizabeth Sopo, Molecular Medicine, Master’s Candidate.

Men and depression…
“Both men and women suffer from depression. Women are more willing to share their feelings and reach out for help than men,” notes Fernandez. “Unfortunately this translates into men turning more to substance use for relief. We need much more research to understand all aspects of mood disorders in men, including how to make men more comfortable acknowledging our feelings and getting help when we need it.”

Other links:
Men Get Depression National Outreach Campaign
USF Chair of Psychiatry in National Documentary to appear in May 2008
La Depresion y los Hombres

Story by Lissette Campos, USF Health Communications
Photos courtesy News Channel 8