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Climate Change? Here’s the Stigma Weather Report

By Bob Carolla, Director, NAMI Media Relations

The summer of 2013 seems to be marked by rapid changes in weather.

On June 3, President Obama convened a White House Conference on Mental Health and launched a National Dialogue on mental illness to take place in communities nationwide. One of the concerns the President addressed was the unfair stigma that surrounds mental illness—which discourages people from seeking help when they need it and, when internalized, impedes recovery.

“We've got to get rid of that stigma,” the President declared.

Meanwhile, Vonage, the phone services company, has adopted “Crazy Generous” as a marketing slogan. The word “Crazy” might not be bad by itself (see discussion below) except that the company’s commercials feature a ragged man who many mental health advocates believe projects a negative stereotype of homelessness and/or mental illness. If you agree, contact publicrelations@vonage.com, NAMI has already raised concern.

On NBC’s America’s Got Talent on July 9, one of the judges, made a comment to the effect that one group of contestants looked like someone had opened the doors of a mental institution and let them out on the stage. NAMI received only one complaint, but still. Gee whiz.

Then came the dog days of August.

On July 23 television pop psychologist, Dr. Phil, sought to reassure a woman struggling with obsessive behavior that she was not insane because insane people “suck on rocks and bark at the moon.”

Before protests over that remark had faded, Brian Williams, the anchor on NBC’s Evening News, referred to Cleveland’s kidnapper and rapist, Aril Castro, as “arguably the face of mental illness.”

NAMI blasted both Dr. Phil and Williams in a national press release . But we also expressed surprise and disappointment in them because we know that they know better. Dr. Phil is controversial, but has focused constructively on some mental health topics on his show. And in 2009, Williams talked directly about stigma in an interview with actor Joey Pants about his experiences with depression.

Williams had knee surgery the day after the Castro broadcast—whether that’s ironic or symbolic I leave up to others to decide. His office, however, apologized. They explained that as Williams read his script in the live broadcast, he recognized—too late—that it was an improper characterization. NBC then edited the segment to remove the reference from the “feed” to stations that don’t carry the show live.

“We sincerely apologize for the unintended offense caused by these remarks and hope you will forgive the mistake,” his office said. The statement may not satisfy everyone but frankly, it’s a stronger, more sincere apology than mental health advocates usually get.

So, what can we expect next?

Well, on Sept. 26, CBS will premiere a new show , The Crazy Ones, starring Robin Williams (who in real life lives with bipolar disorder). But wait. Based on previews available to date, it doesn’t have anything to do with mental illness.

It’s a comedy about an advertising firm where “crazy ideas” turn into genius. It also seems like a satirical play on words around AMC’s Mad Men, the hit show about an advertising firm in New York City.

Some people consider the word “crazy” to be stigmatizing by itself, but a critical distinction is whether the word is actually used to refer to mental illness or a person living with mental illness. There are many different meanings to the word and, depending on the dictionary, references to mental illness may be not be in the first, second or even third definitions.

“Crazy” can also mean askew, impractical, extreme, unusual, enthusiastic, distracted by excitement, passionate, absurd, preposterous, fantastic and wild. Context is important. (Do you agree?)

So, that’s the weather report for now.

Except for one additional item.

NAMI Virginia reported that Fredericksburg, Va., news media predicated "A schizophrenic week lies ahead" on Aug. 5 because a warm front and cold front would “would open the door to clouds and a significant chance of rainfall each day the rest of this week (hence the split personality suggested in the blog post title).”

Technically, that’s not stigma. It’s gross ignorance and metaphorical confusion, which probably is just as bad. Ignorance perpetuates ignorance, stigma perpetuates stigma and they often go hand-in-hand.

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