Written Testimony for the Hearing Record
Testimony before the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies
May 2, 2002; Washington, D.C.
Waltraud E. Prechter
President, Heinz C. Prechter Fund for Manic Depression
Chairman, Prechter Holdings, Inc.
One Heritage Place, Suite 400
Southgate, MI 48195
Chairman Regula, members of the Committee, my name is Waltraud Prechter. I am president of a foundation my children and I established last year in my husband's memory: the Heinz C. Prechter Fund for Manic Depression. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to speak to you today as a wife, a mother and an individual whose life has been touched by the hellish affliction called manic depression.
I will never forget July 6, 2001. It was a Friday and we started the day full of hope and the promise of recovery. Heinz, my husband of 24 years, felt better this morning than he had in months. He had struggled with his third bout of manic depression in over three decades. The shroud of hopelessness that had immobilized him for what seemed an eternity had lifted at last. For the first time in months, he rose early and full of energy to work out. I was relieved, elated.
At 8:00 a.m. the phone rang twice. I picked it up but the line was dead. A sudden rush of fear overcame me and I ran across the driveway to the guesthouse where Heinz used to work out. It was there I found his lifeless body. In the act of ultimate despair, he hung himself.
Heinz left without a word. There were no good byes for our twin children, Paul and Stephanie. There was no goodbye for me. He was 59 years old.
This is how the life of legendary business visionary, community leader, and philanthropist Heinz Prechter ended. He fell victim to manic depression, an insidious hereditary illness that is hardly understood and even more difficult to treat.
My husband embodied the American Dream. He was born in 1942 in the tiny farming community of Kleinhöbing in southern Germany, only a few miles away from the village I called home. All his life he was driven by his entrepreneurial spirit. So he left home at the age of thirteen to become an apprentice to work on cars in his uncle's garage.
In 1963, he came to the United States as an exchange student. With nothing to his name but eleven dollars and an old cardboard suitcase, Heinz stayed at the local YMCA. Only a short while later, he introduced the sunroof to North America and founded the American Sunroof Company as a one-man enterprise in a two-car garage in Los Angeles. Heinz spent 764 dollars on tools, a workbench from an old door covered with aluminum, and a sewing machine from a junkyard.
The rest is what is commonly referred to as…history.
This young immigrant from Bavaria grew his company into the premier global supplier of specialty vehicles and open-air systems. On the height of his success, ASC Incorporated was the flagship of a group of automotive, newspaper, media, real estate, investment, and livestock companies with 60 facilities and 5,300 employees worldwide.
Heinz's phenomenal business success was paired with a deep sense of commitment to his newfound homeland. Driven by the spirit of giving back to the community, he established the World Heritage Foundation, a philanthropic entity dedicated to helping make a difference in the areas of health, education, welfare, arts and culture, and the community. Founded in 1985, the foundation fosters innovative public and private sector partnerships, entrepreneurial development, and German American relations.
Heinz became a citizen of this great nation in 1972. My husband loved to be part of the political process always looking to make a difference and be part of the solution to challenges in our community, state, country and world. He believed in the American Dream and self-determination. And although Heinz was a Republican at heart he did not let his personal political convictions stand in the way of progress. He worked with fellow Republicans and members of the Democratic Party alike in order to bring about positive change and work for the greater good. President George H.W. Bush recognized Heinz's commitment, dedication, and knowledge by asking him to serve as Chairman of the President's Export Council.
Many of his friends and associates called him "the quintessential entrepreneur, visionary, community leader, and philanthropist who bridged the worlds of business, politics, and the community creating opportunities for thousands."
At the pinnacle of his success, my husband fell victim to suicide after suffering from intermittent bouts of manic depression for most of his adult life. Heinz was one of 30,000 fellow Americans who took their lives last year. That, Mr. Chairman, represents one suicide every 17 minutes.
What is the devastating illness that took Heinz and with him opportunities from all of us too great to imagine?
The National Depressive and Manic Depressive Association in Chicago states that manic depression, or bipolar disorder as it is called, is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and marked by extreme changes in mood, thought, energy and behavior. Although we do not know the direct cause of the illness, it is clear that genetic, biochemical and environmental factors each play a role. Contrary to common belief, manic depression-like diabetes or heart disease-is not a character flaw or a sign of personal weakness. Mental illness clearly is physical illness.
Most people who have bipolar disorder talk about experiencing alternating periods of mania and depression. These swings can be severe, ranging from extreme energy to deep despair.
Manic depression affects an estimated 2.7 million adult Americans. An equal number of men and women develop this illness and it is found among all ages, races, ethnic groups and social classes. However, the stigma of mental illness prevents millions from seeking proper medical care. Currently, only 10 percent of those suffering from depressive disorders receive adequate treatment.
Heinz fell victim to an illness which is a national tragedy in human suffering and an unbearable economic burden to America and the world. Our global information economy is, by definition, an economy of mental performance. According to Bill Wilkerson, Co-founder of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, this underscores mental health in the labor force as a critical determinant of output much like physical health was in the old industrial economy. Motivation, knowledge and perspective, judgment, the ability to communicate, share ideas and foster productive relationships at work define human capital.
Manic depression destroys all these skills essential to the knowledge-based economy in the 21st century. The World Health Organization has compared manic depression to blindness and paraplegia. Manic depression is one of the most disabling illnesses in the United States and the world. In America alone, manic depression adds to the $105 billion in economic loss due to lost productivity, absenteeism, and premature death. Mr. Chairman, it is an illness we simply can no longer afford.
In order to prevent others from going through what our family has endured, my children and I have established a foundation in Heinz's memory, called the Heinz C. Prechter Fund for Manic Depression. The Fund will engage the "best and the brightest" researchers to advance breakthrough medical research to help find cures for bipolar disorder.
You might ask yourself some questions I have been asked by many friends in the community: "Why did Heinz die? How could this man with access to the best medical care money could buy succumb to this illness?"
Illnesses of the mind have been shrouded in fear, shame, and misunderstanding for as long man walked the earth. Even after 200 years of enlightenment and technological progress we have not seen a paradigm shift in how mental illnesses are medically treated and dealt with in society. The artificial, centuries-old separation of mind and body prevails.
We tend to believe that at the dawn of the 21st century, we, as one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, must surely have a remedy for any ailment we encounter.
Heinz's death proves that we do not. We are in the dark about the causes of manic depression. We don't know how to effectively and safely treat manic depression.
We find ourselves in the predicament that we have all the questions-but no answers. Today, I respectfully request your leadership in providing answers of hope and healing to millions of fellow Americans suffering from manic depression.
During the 1990s, dubbed the "Decade of the Brain", Congress provided unprecedented levels of funding to researchers in neuroscience, behavioral science, and genetics to uncover the inner workings of the brain. I am greatly appreciative to our representatives for their vision and support in pursuit of this new frontier.
In addition, I am grateful that Congress has supported the efforts by both the Clinton and Bush Administrations to double the funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) over a five-year period beginning in 1998. In that regard, I would like to outline the Heinz C. Prechter Fund's fiscal year 2003 legislative requests to this committee. They are threefold:
While NIH funding has, indeed, increased, funding for the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) lags behind the increases for other NIH institutes. Therefore, the Fund's first request is that the Committee increase NIMH funding on a par with the other institutes.
Second, I would ask the Committee to encourage NIMH to provide bipolar disorder with its proportionate share of funding increases for mental health research. Even more importantly, I would suggest for NIMH to focus its bipolar research on unlocking the underlying genetic causes of this insidious hereditary disease as well as developing effective and safe treatment options. As in the case of cancer or AIDS, we as a nation should commit ourselves to finding cures for this condition that affects millions of Americans.
Lastly, I would ask you to urge the Department of Health and Human Services to convene a national symposium to bring together the best and brightest researchers and clinicians, mental health advocacy groups and affected individuals to lay the foundation for finding cures for bipolar disorder. A proven formula for this type of consensus symposium already exists. In 1998, a National Suicide Prevention Conference was convened in Reno, Nevada, bringing together mental health consumers, individuals who lost loved ones, clinicians and policy makers to conduct a "careful analysis of what is known and unknown about suicide." As a result, the Surgeon General issued a "Call to Action to Prevent Suicide," which ultimately resulted in a national strategy to combat this serious public health problem.
I believe we can enhance and build upon that proven model. Participants would go beyond defining the status quo of bipolar research by creating an actual "road map" to developing cures for manic depression. The federal government could serve as an important catalyst in this process. The symposium's recommendations could also help the public sector to more effectively allocate scarce resources thereby accelerating breakthroughs. Since bipolar disorder is a significant cause of suicide, this type of national approach is certainly warranted.
I am humbled and deeply honored by the opportunity to share my story with you. This is just one story of thousands of untold stories all over America. It is my hope that-starting today-we will jointly embark on a journey in pursuit of a new frontier: to battle the illness that robs us of our loved ones and to find cures for manic depression which will lead to a healthier, happier, and more productive America. Thank you.