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Challenging Stereotypes: We Must Speak Out!


By: the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

The purpose of this section is to provide you with some tools to help you promote fair, accurate, and balanced portrayals of mental illness in the media. Your voice does make a difference. Whether you handwrite it, type it, dictate it, or e-mail it, it’s your passion and knowledge that persuade, that get your letters read (and published), and that change hearts and minds.

Seven Steps to Writing an Effective Letter of Complaint

1.       Open with your purpose and express your feelings

The purpose of this letter is...

o        to let you know...
o        to suggest...
o        to let you know...
o        to express my disappointment with...
o        to protest...
o        to condemn... 

2.       Document the source of your complaint

o        your editorial...
o        your article...
o        your television program...
o        your film......that appeared on (date) under the title of (name of the editorial, article, program, or film)

3.       Say who you are

o        As a reader, viewer/fan who has a psychiatric disability...
o        As the family member of a wonderful young woman who has a... o        As the administrator of a program for persons who... 

4.       Say what upset you and the harm it does

I can tell you that...

o        your joke made me cry from pain and anger...
o        your headline made my blood boil...
o        you are misleading the public about... 

5.       Add some information and psychiatric disabilities

I can also tell you that...

o        negative stereotypes profoundly affect attitudes towards persons with mental illness. A 1990 study found that two out of three people surveyed get their information about mental illness from the media — not doctors or other professionals. You can address any harm done by accurately reporting... 

6.       Say what you want done

I implore you to stop...

o        the slurs and jokes...
o        the sensational headlines...
o        the exploitation...You can address any harm done by accurately reporting...

7.       Educate!

I enclose...

o        educational material about...
o        information about our program...
o        an article about...

Here are Some Examples of Actual Letters, Written by Real-Life People

Here is a Letter to a Newspaper Conerning an Offensive Cartoon

Regarding the cartoon on your editorial page yesterday, the use of the words “paranoid schizophrenic” and the man in the straitjacket are very offensive. Apparently the person who authored this cartoon knows nothing about mental illness. Paranoid schizophrenia is a very serious mental illness, and it is nothing to make jokes about.
The media is guilty of using this term indiscriminately. One in four families is affected by a mental illness. None of us has to look very far to know someone who has been touched by this disease.I hope the people who are guilty of using these terms will educate themselves.

Here is a Letter to a Television Network about a Stigmatizing Episode of a Situtation Comedy Show

I am writing to express my deep disappointment that your network plans to rebroadcast an episode of the Drew Carey Show (August 20, 1997) that many of us in the mental health and vocational rehabilitation community find highly objectionable. This episode reinforces the wide-spread perception that persons with mental illness are dangerous, that employing people with a history of mental illness or being friendly with people with a history of mental illness is likely to end in violence, and that people with mental illness are to be kept away from the rest of society as much as possible. Having made the mistake twice now, the show simply chooses to ignore the criticism, rebroadcasts the offending episodes, and moves forward.

Here is a Letter to a Newspaper about an Offensive Obituary

Your Oct. 7 obituary of Margaret Mary Ray does a great disservice to Ray and to the millions of other people with mental illnesses. Focusing on Ray’s unusual behaviors, it encourages the public to think of those with mental illnesses more as a bundle of frightening symptoms than as complex human beings, like others, with back-ground and roots and even accomplishments unrelated to her mental illness.
In Ray’s obituary, readers learn of her stalking of David Letterman, her imprisonment, and her institutionalization — circumstances that are appropriately reported as part of the history that brought her to public attention. In contrast to the more traditional obituaries, however — such as the one just below hers — no information about other aspects of her life is given.

The other obituary tells of the deceased woman’s occupation and education. No information about education and occupation is provided for Margaret Mary Ray. The other obituary names a home town and tells a little about the woman’s early life. No such information is provided for Ray. Readers are told of survivors who will mourn the other woman’s passing. Ray’s obituary ends only with a retelling of a joke about her from the Letterman show.
Just because someone’s mental illness has led her to jail, hospitalization and finally suicide does not mean that she should be treated as less fully human than others. Margaret Mary Ray — as all those who have psychiatric disorders — deserves recognition of a life and an identity beyond mental illness.

Here is a "General Purpose" Educational Letter to a Newspaper

In the past 2½ years, two sons and a daughter of three of my friends have died from the same type of illness that afflicts my son. Two of these people committed suicide. The other was psychotic and thought he could swim across Budd Inlet. He made it less than halfway.
The oldest of these three young people was 30. All had serious mental illness. Can you imagine how I feel when mental illness is mocked or trivialized?

The current ad campaign for Denny’s Grand Slam Breakfast is a prime example of trivializing serious mental illness. Every time I hear or see the ad, it churns my stomach and makes me want to cry. Saying, “You must be out of your mind,” says, in essence, “You must be out of touch with reality.” Being out of touch with reality means being in psychosis. People who suffer from psychosis suffer. And people who love people who suffer from psychoses also suffer.

The “Happy Meal” boxes currently at McDonald’s are another example. They feature “Animaniacs,” which, I understand, is a Warner Bros. Saturday morning cartoon starring Wakko and Yakko. I’m sure it is not the intention of McDonald’s or Warner Bros. that, the next time my son has a relapse of his illness, his niece and nephews should laugh at him instead of worrying about him. That is certainly not their intention, but it could well be the result.

I know there’s a lot of talk now about “political correctness” and I know that people are about fed up with it. I’m not talking about political correctness. I’m talking about compassion and consideration for people in deep pain. As painful as psychoses can be, I’ve heard more than one person with serious mental illness say that the stigma is worse than the illness.

Please, these illnesses can strike in any family. They generally hit people in their late teens or early twenties — just as a person is about to begin to fulfill his dreams.Please teach your children compassion for people with serious illness and join me in letting advertisers know that any attempt to sell products at the expense of other people’s pain is no longer funny.

Here is a Letter to a Newspaper About the Use of Stereotypical Language

The first sentence of your April editorial, “Painful Lessons,” describes the bombers of the Oklahoma City Federal building as “deranged individuals.” How interesting that this is the nastiest thing you can think of to say about them! Once again the press has equated mental illness with violent evil acts.
Nowhere in the editorial, or other media reports of the Oklahoma bombing, is there any indication that the suspects are people with psychiatric disabilities. Indeed, like others described in your editorial who committed evil acts, they are political fanatics who do not value human life.

When I phoned my ex-roommate last month to wish her happy birthday, she told me a horror story all too common for those of us with psychiatric labels. When she sought treatment at a psychiatric emergency ward, this small gentle person was assaulted twice by staff. Her insistence on specifying which medications she would take got her labeled “non-compliant.” Then, after the family minister was fooled into leaving, they jumped her. After breaking her wrist in three places, they injected her with huge amounts of mind-paralyzing drugs. She awoke from the drug haze in “four-point restraint,” with her wrist swollen double its usual size, and in severe pain. Labeling the acts of violent political or religious fanatics the work of “deranged individuals” directly feeds the prejudice which led to the assault on my friend.

Information You Can Use in Letters

Serious Mental Illnesses, a term applied to mental disorders that interfere with some area of social functioning, affect over 10 million adults (5.4 percent of the adult population).1 Though the illnesses are treatable and many people lead productive lives before and after the illness, the stigma and discrimination imposed by society discourage treatment and impede recovery. Two-thirds of the 44 million Americans who have diagnosable mental disorders do not seek treatment.2 only in appropriate medical contexts to reduce public confusion.

Psychosis is a term used to indicate thinking disruption and altered perceptions of reality. Psychosis can occur during an acute phase of schizophrenia, manic-depression, or major depression, and is generally treatable. “Psychotic” does not mean sinister or violent. The term “psychotic” is often misused in articles, novels, television dramas, and movies to describe characters with a pattern of heinous behavior. This error spreads confusion about the nature of psychosis and adds to prejudice.

Schizophrenia is a diagnostic term applied to a serious, treatable illness that will affect one out of every 100 Americans. The illness responds best to early, supportive treatment. Over time, many people learn successful ways of managing even severe symptoms to moderate their disrup-tiveness to daily life.3 Schizophrenia is not split or multiple personality. The word should be used only in appropriate medical contexts to reduce public confusion.

Major Depression, also called major unipolar depression, is the leading cause of disability in the United States and worldwide.4 It affects one in 15 Americans in any given year. The suicide rate is 6 times higher for persons with diagnos-able depression than for a person without the illness.5 With appropriate treatment, 80 percent of those affected can improve.6

Manic-Depression, also called bipolar disorder, is a treatable condition causing disabling mood swings that will affect one in 100 Americans. Determining the proper medication requires persistence and patience.7 Studies show that without treatment the illness leads to suicide in nearly 20 percent of cases.8 Manic-depressive illness, major depression, and schizophrenia are complicated when combined with alcohol or substance abuse.

Recovery from a serious mental illness may take months or years. Progress toward recovery is aided by recognizing symptoms and seeking early help, appropriate medical care, social and housing supports, guidance in managing symptoms, access to crisis support, and rehabilitation options.
 
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