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Fighting Stigma at the Voice Awards

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By Bob Carolla, Director of Media Relations

They are not quite the Academy Awards, but the mental health community's annual Voice Awards represent an important strategy in fighting stigma and promoting social inclusion of people living with mental illness.

They praise Hollywood leaders who "get it right" and honor people living with mental illness who advocate for dignity and equality.

On May 24, at a gala ceremony at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) honored directors and screenwriters for incorporating accurate, dignified and respectful portrayals into television and film portrayals.

Advocates who have lived with mental illness or substance abuse and worked for public education also were applauded.

Special recognition awards were presented to Ron Barber, district director for U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and survivor of the Tucson tragedy earlier this year, for his long-time support of mental health awareness, and to Tucson Mayor Robert Walkup and his wife Beth, for their efforts in helping the community heal from the traumatic event.

Motion Picture Awards

SAMHSA honored four movies, two of which, "The King's Speech" and "The Fighter," were winners of Academy Awards.

Funny StoryIn "The King's Speech," on the eve of World War II, King George VI overcomes a stutter that is rooted in abuse by his nanny when he was a child. In "The Fighter," family support and a pivotal moment of self-discipline are seen as elements of a brother's struggle against substance abuse.

The third honoree was "The Beaver" for its portrayal of a family affected by a father's deep depression. The winter 2011 issue of NAMI's Advocate included an exclusive interview with actress Jodie Foster, who directed and starred in the film.

The fourth honoree in the movie category was "It's Kind of a Funny Story", about a teenager who admits himself into a hospital because of depression. Based on a true story, the film will be reviewed in the fall 2011 print issue of the Advocate.


Some films in the documentary category may seem obscure, but they have made powerful contributions to public education.

HBO's "Wartorn 1861-2010", makes the important point that posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not a new condition. It has long been part of the war experience. The only difference is the name. Some of the images in the film and even the narration are somewhat graphic and may stir feelings of trauma.

Another HBO documentary, "If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise", by director Spike Lee, documents New Orleans's efforts to be reborn, following the devastation and trauma of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The challenge includes the depiction of the long-term mental health needs that the community will continue to face for years to come.

Focusing on an individual rather than a panoramic topic, "Dad's in Heaven with Nixon" is an inspiring story about the strength and triumph of the human spirit. It is about a mother's love and a boy living with brain damage and autism and his journey to becoming an artist.

The film "The Soloist", which was released in 2009, residents of Los Angeles' Skid Row were hired as extras to play themselves in the film, which itself won a Voice Award. This year, SAMHSA honored "Lost Angels: Skid Row is My Home," focuses on several individuals and captures their sense of community and hope.

Television Series

The Beaver

Traditionally, Voice Awards honor individual television episodes or storylines rather than an entire series.

This year, however, three series won awards: "Parenthood" which includes a son living with Asperger's syndrome, "Treme" which although not a documentary, chronicles New Orleans's recovery from the trauma of Hurricane Katrina and "The Pacific," HBO's graphic 10-part miniseries about World War II.

Reviews of "The Pacific" warned against the intensity of violence and bloodshed in the series, but the realism is considered to have helped increase public understanding of war's psychological traumas, including PTSD.

An irony among the television awards is that sometimes one episode of a show may reflect a stigmatizing stereotypes of a person living with mental illness, while another episodes presents a sensitive, accurate portrayal. The difference may be that different episodes have different screenwriters or that NAMI and others in the mental health community have succeeded in educating a director or screenwriter. This year, five shows won Voice Awards for specific episodes or storylines.

  • "Glee" (Storyline Award)
  • "Grey's Anatomy" (Storyline Award)
  • "Harry's Law" (Episode Award)
  • "Private Practice" (Storyline Award)
  • "Mad Men" (Storyline Award)

Advocacy Awards

The Voice Awards also honor real heroes; individuals, who actually live with mental illness and have endured trauma or struggled with substance abuse. They now work to help others based on their own experiences.

  • Jacki McKinney, M.S.W received the Lifetime Achievement Award. A survivor of early childhood abuse who experienced co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders, homelessness and interaction with the criminal justice system, she is a founder of the "trauma awareness" movement and of the National People of Color Consumer/Survivor Network. She works closely with SAMHSA's Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS).
  • Tonier Cain speaks nationally about trauma, incarceration, and recovery. She is a team leader for SAMHSA's National Center for Trauma-Informed Care (NCTI) and the subject of a documentary "Healing Neen", a story about her life as she moved through different systems of care.
  • Amanda Gregory received the Young Adult Leadership Award. She is vice-president of Youth M.O.V.E. (Motivating Others through Voices of Experience), a subsidiary of the National Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health.
  • Athena Haddon is the director of Everyday Miracles, a peer recovery support center sponsored by Spectrum Health Systems.
  • Heidi Kraft, Ph.D. served in Iraq as part of a Marines surgical company and wrote the book, "Rule Number Two," about her experiences, including descriptions of PTSD. She has been a consultant to the Navy and Marines Combat Stress Control program.
  • Former Army Captain Luis Carlos Montalván served two tours in Iraq, before being diagnosed with PTSD. He is an advocate of providing service dogs to veterans living with PTSD. He is the author of "Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him."
  • Pat Risser is an advocate for trauma-informed care. He is a past president and board member of the National Association for Rights Protection and Advocacy (NARPA) and a consultant to Witness Justice.
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