Renowned doctor 'Patch' Adams speaks about joy, mental health

Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams speaks at a cancer event in 2014.

ONEONTA, N.Y. — Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams, a doctor and clown who was the inspiration for the 1998 film named after him starring the late Robin Williams, spoke with college students and community members Wednesday night about mental health and the importance of love, joy and laughter.

Dressed in bright mismatched clothes with a long silver ponytail and half of his head dyed blue, Adams, a nationally known speaker on wellness, humor and health care stood and spoke in front of a packed ballroom at the State University College of Oneonta.

His presentation, titled “Living the Life of Joy,” touched on the importance of loving others and peace and justice, how to enjoy every day and how to be grateful in all circumstances.

Being joyful is a choice, Adams, almost 70, told the large audience, and “scientific data shows it is good for you.” Making an active decision to be “happy, funny, loving, creative, cooperative and thoughtful” has allowed Adams to live a joyful life, he said.

The audience clapped, laughed and gave an occasional “amen” as Adams offered nuggets of wisdom, such as “loving is the most important thing in life.”

The event was sponsored by the one of the college’s student organizations and planned by SUNY Oneonta senior Steven Doolittle.

Doolittle said he wrote to Adams about a year ago and has been communicating with him ever since.

“I didn’t really expect anything back from him,” Doolittle said, “I told him about how there’s a stigma about mental illness here … He’s my role model.”

According to Doolittle, Adams saw and understood the need for mental health resources and said he would come to speak for half the price that he usually charges.

Adams, a self-described social activist, has devoted 30 years to attempting to change America’s health care system, which he described as “expensive and elitist.” He said he believes that laughter, joy and creativity are integral parts of the healing process and true health care must incorporate these.

That’s why he and colleagues founded the Gesundheit Institute together in 1971 in West Virginia, he said. With a “laughter is the best medicine” model in mind, he and other physicians saw more than 15,000 patients at the Institute and never asked for any payment from any of them, Adams said.

Doctors and patients in this model relate to each other on the basis of mutual trust, and patients receive plenty of time from their doctors, according to Adams, who said he sometimes spends four hours in an initial visit with patients.

In addition to his training as a doctor, Adams cited his experience as a street clown as a useful tool in relating to others. In working with health and mental health professionals, he has explored the relationship between humor and therapy using a unique blend of knowledge, showmanship and “hands-on” teaching techniques, he said.

But most of all, Adams said, he tries to just be loving to others and be “so happy that it shows” and rubs off on them.

“I interpret my experience in life as being happy,” Adams said. “I believe that the most revolutionary act one can commit in our world is to be happy. And I want, as a doctor, to say it does matter to your health to be happy. It may be the most important health factor in your life.”

Reynolds writes for the Oneonta (New York) Daily Star. 

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