Editors Note: NAMI wishes to thank Schizophrenia Digest for allowing us to reprint this article in its entirety. This article may not be reproduced from our site without express written permission.
Leading the Fight Against Stigma
by: David Staba
Stella March spent much of her working life in the advertising business, and devoted her off time to fighting for a variety of causes.
So when schizophrenia struck her family, the Los Angeles resident combined her professional background and personal advocacy into a campaign that ultimately targeted perhaps the largest obstacle facing people with mental illness—the stigma that permeates popular culture.
"I’ve been involved in advocacy since college days, for peace, against war and so on," says Stella, who coordinates the StigmaBusters campaign of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). "When my kids went to public schools here, I was advocating for more funding for education from the state and the integration of public schools. That training prepared me to work on mental-illness issues before it happened."
"It" happened to March’s family in the late 1970s, when her son, then a student at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
"He was at the state hospital," Stella recalls. "I cried my eyes out every time I left."
She quickly channeled those emotions into battling for mental-health causes. She and other family members began banding together across the United States, building NAMI - a then-fledgling organization - into a powerful lobbying and public-information force.
The new group started pushing state and federal governments, as well as pharmaceutical companies, to fund additional research into schizophrenia. Those efforts ultimately helped produce a new generation of medications, reminding Stella and her peers of the strength in numbers.
"One of anybody can’t do anything," she says.
After successfully working to gain protections for people with mental illness under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, NAMI launched a campaign against discrimination in 1995.
One of the first steps was an attempt to enlist celebrities to record public service announcements about the issue. Stella, familiar with the ins and outs of show-business publicity from her advertising days, learned the strength of stigma first-hand.
"When it came to mental illness, all the agents and publicists and celebrities had a big wall around them," she says. "They wouldn’t even listen."
Finally,Mike Farrell - best known for his long run as B.J.Honeycutt on television’s "M*A*S*H*" - stepped forward and agreed to appear in a public-service announcement.
Not that many people ever saw it.
"Frankly, a lot of the networks and stations didn’t play it, or they played it at 2 in the morning," Stella says.
Rather than trying to work within the framework of traditional media, she and other NAMI leaders decided to launch their assault on stigma from outside the Hollywood establishment, and StigmaBusters was born.
"We realized we couldn’t put an end to discrimination without addressing stigma," she says.
The group began watching for inaccurate and insensitive portrayals in television, movies, music and advertising. Such stigmatizing characterizations triggered "StigmaBuster Email Alerts," which encouraged NAMI members to make their displeasure heard where it would echo the loudest—in the corporate offices of the entertainment industry that produced them.
Stella stresses that StigmaBusters isn’t interested in censorship, but in education.
"They’re not going to pull back books that are published or films that are distributed - it costs too much money," she says. "We hope to educate them so they won’t do it again in the future."
In 1999, the Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Illness outlined the damage done by stigma.
"Stigma leads others to avoid living, socializing or working with, renting to, or employing people with mental disorders, especially severe disorders such as schizophrenia," the report reads. "It reduces patients’ access to resources and opportunities (e.g., housing, jobs) and leads to low self-esteem, isolation and hopelessness. It deters the public from seeking, and wanting to pay for, care. … More tragically, it deprives people of their dignity and interferes with their full participation in society."
With entertainment options flooding through a constantly growing array of outlets, StigmaBusters picks its battles carefully. Single words like "crazy," "loony" or "nuts" don’t trigger action, unless they’re used as part of a larger pattern of stigmatization.
Instead, the focus remains on high-profile media ventures that inaccurately portray mental illness.
Two of Stigma-Busters’ biggest victories came in 2000.
After an alert called attention to the stigmatizing ad campaign for the FOX-distributed Jim Carrey film "Me,Myself and Irene" - starring the comedian as a police officer with schizophrenia - the furor resulted in drastic changes.
The same year, another alert - along with low ratings - helped convince ABC to cancel the one-hour drama "Wonderland", set in a nightmarish version of New York City’s Bellevue Hospital.
Another triumph came in the field of advertising. Nestle’s line of Tasty, Tangy Taffy Bars featured wrappers bearing distorted cartoon faces of characters with names like "Psycho Sam,""Loony Jerry" and "Weird Wally." Two alerts and even a letter from former First Lady Rosalynn Carter convinced Nestle to repackage the candies, minus the stigmatizing names and cartoons.
In the fall of 2004, StigmaBusters went after two entertainment-industry heavyweights.
In late September, CBS aired "Dr. Phil: Families First," a two-hour primetime special during which pop psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw told the parents of a troubled child to "go fishing," rather than seek medical treatment, even though the boy showed signs of possible bipolar disorder.
"Not only did the show represent a breach of professional ethics, but also, in the opinion of many, malpractice," read a letter co-signed by NAMI Executive Director Michael J. Fitzpatrick.
CBS CEO Leslie Moonves responded with a letter of apology, while McGraw wrote to say he hadn’t intended to downplay the importance of professional help.
Around the same time, Universal Orlando Theme Parks launched an advertising campaign for its "Halloween Horrors Events" that pictured a man in a straitjacket with the tagline, "What’s your breaking point?" A press kit sent to reporters included a committal form to a fictional psychiatric ward and a straitjacket.
StigmaBusters responded with an alert pointing out that the notion that someone can be "driven insane" by fear, as well as the straitjacket imagery, promote archaic stereotypes and stigma.
While Universal continued its campaign, the controversy led other local Halloween-themed promotions with stigmatizing connotations, such as an "insane asylum" haunted house, to "clean up their act," Stella says.
The campaign also strives to be proactive. Through a connection with the Writer’s Guild of America, which represents the people who produce the screenplays of most movies and television shows, Stella distributed an educational brochure to the group’s 8,000 members.
"There was a paragraph about each sort of mental illness and about what sort of language hurts," she says.
StigmaBusters also uses that connection with the Writer’s Guild to quietly encourage sensitivity.
"When a film comes out that gives a very inaccurate portrayal, I can send a letter and I’m able to get it through the writer’s guild and explain the hurt, so that hopefully, they won’t do it again," she says. "Instead, we hope they’ll use some balance."
StigmaBuster Alerts also call attention to positive, accurate portrayals of people with mental illness, such as the film A Beautiful Mind and an article in the January 2005 issue of Reader’s Digest, which described a Florida man with schizophrenia who got a job at a local restaurant through a local NAMI-sponsored clubhouse.
"We protest or we praise," Stella says. "We have to protest at times, but we love to praise. This article really proved that sometimes, good things are going on."
That sense of optimism keeps her going, believing that change will come, even if attitudes adjust gradually.
"With racism and HIV and cancer - which for many years wasn’t discussed and was hidden - the stigma has dissipated," she says. "With racism, there’s still stigma but it has been reduced. There’s certain language people don’t dare to use. I think eventually, the same thing will happen with mental illness."