Kate Walsh has spent a lot of time in hospitals — in real life and on TV. The actor spent years playing Dr. Addison Montgomery, first on Grey’s Anatomy and then on the spinoff show Private Practice, but no script or set could prepare her for her real-life battle with a brain tumor. Now, after spending time on both sides of the examination table, Walsh is opening up about the major impact Hollywood and pop culture can have on women’s health.
To start, health care makes for great TV. “It’s life and death,” Walsh told the audience at the BlogHer18 Health conference hosted by SheKnows Media in New York on Wednesday, Jan. 31. “I think it’s the uniforms too — white coats, always running. There’s always a surgery and some making out.”
Walsh was part of a panel discussion called “Hollywood on Health,” a retrospective look at the way our favorite female characters have educated us about important health issues, which also featured Sara Vilkomerson (a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly) and was moderated by Kaja Perina (the editor-in-chief of Psychology Today).
During her time in Shondaland, Walsh said she had the opportunity to address many different health, gender and political issues, including women being able to control their own reproductive choices. But despite years wearing scrubs as a costume, she said she still struggled to regularly schedule and attend medical appointments.
“I was someone who never went to the doctor and still am like, ‘Do I really have to go for a checkup?'” Walsh said. “You don’t think about it until you actually get health issues, which did happen in the last couple years. Now I have a circuit of doctors and I feel like we should all dine together once a week.”
In the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, Walsh had the chance to play another type of caregiver — mother to a suicidal teenage daughter — and said she was very fortunate to work on a show with such great writing.
“We had no idea how it was going to be received, but I felt so proud and excited to be a part of such an incredible project that we hoped would be a social contribution and start a conversation, not only about suicide and sexual assault, but about gender issues, racism, everything that’s in the zeitgeist and culture now,” Walsh said.
And though 13 Reasons Why was a success in terms of ratings and reviews, it was not without its detractors, many of whom said the show risked glamorizing mental health conditions and suicide. But Walsh disagrees.
“[The suicide scene] was very, very well considered and thought about, and it was a conscious decision in the spirit of not romanticizing it and not just having a beautiful girl with a great soundtrack and all these gorgeous kids,” she said. “The idea was to show how horrific and horrible [suicide is] and the detriment it brings not just to Hannah Baker, but the ripple effect it had on her whole family and community.”
Walsh is also realistic and understands that people can interpret a show’s message differently depending on their personal experience and background. “We’re in a culture where everyone’s got an opinion, so no one is going to think the story is told exactly right, which is something we have to accept as well,” she said.
In season 2, Walsh says to expect to see more of the nuanced conversation surrounding suicide, and that they are going to “delve more into the sexual assault.” More than anything, Walsh emphasized that she was honored to be able to be part of a show where she tried to be of service to families that have endured the unimaginable. “You feel like you want to do your best job to honor those people,” she said.
“The culture of bullying is so vast, so extensive, so intense, and it starts at such a young age,” Walsh added. “There will never be a perfect way to bring the conversation [about mental health] into the culture, but it has to happen, and it has to happen young.”