Palmetto Media Watch

Palmetto Media Watch poster

    * What Is the Palmetto Media Watch Program?
    * What Are the Goals of the Palmetto Media Watch Program?
    * What Are We Fighting?
    * Myths and Misconceptions to be Corrected About Mental Illness

What Can I Do?
    * My Role as a Palmetto Media Watch Member
    * Step 1:  What to Look for in the Media: Is it Negative or Positive Reporting?
    * Step 2:  Keep Track of Your Immediate Response
        * A Form for Outlining the Facts
    * Step 3:  Your Response
        * Getting Started
        * Organizing What You Want to Say
        * Writing your letter
        * Content
        * Format
        * Time and Place
        * Copy Your Letter
        * Follow up

Sample letters to the media

Mental Illness Statistics
    * Who is Most at Risk?
    * Prevalence of Mental Illness in South Carolina
    * Social Costs of Mental Illness
    * Economic Costs of Mental Illness


    * Mental Health Organizations


What Is the Palmetto Media Watch Program

The Palmetto Media Watch Program is a public education initiative of the South Carolina Department of Mental Health and advocacy organizations, to help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.

Through a variety of educational approaches, we will help to create caring communities by changing people's attitudes about mental illness, and creating respect for the strengths, experiences and contributions of people with mental illnesses. Our efforts will center on providing educators, journalists, communities, consumers and their families with the information they need to develop greater understanding about the impact of mental illnesses.

The Palmetto Media Watch Program is a way to monitor and respond to the media. Media content that portrays people with mental illnesses as different, dangerous, and unworthy of respect promotes negative public attitudes. For example, a study of misconceptions about mental illnesses found that 88% of the general public believe that people with a mental illness are dangerous or violent.

We know that media images can contribute to the stigma associated with many mental health issues. In turn, stigma keeps people from seeking help and can break down families, friendships and significant relationships. It stops us from being honest about ourselves for fear of rejection. In addition, the media have a strong influence upon the formulation of public policy. Progressive public policy is required to improve the quality of life for thousands living with a mental illness.

What Are Our Goals?

1. Promote the use of personal stories by consumers and family members that identify barriers created by stigma for use in mental health educational material and by the media;

2. Increase accurate, positive media portrayals of people with mental illnesses and issues around mental illnesses;

3. Strengthen alliances with advocacy groups to develop anti-stigma strategies.

What Are We Fighting?

a mark or sign of disgrace or discredit

The American Heritage Dictionary

The Palmetto Media Watch Program will persuade the media to be our allies in the fight against stigma by giving them feedback in the form of suggestions for improvement and commendations for work well done. A supported and trained network of Media Watchers will provide immediate, informative responses to both negative and positive media portrayals of people in our communities living with a mental illness. It is believed that this education of the media will be translated into an awareness among the general public of its own stigmatizing attitudes and, therefore, promote change.

Myths and Misconceptions to be Corrected About Mental Illnesses

Mental Health Consumer
someone who uses or has used mental health services

Myth #1: Mental health consumers are violent or dangerous.

Fact: Mental health consumers are statistically slightly less likely to commit a violent crime than members of the general public. People with mental problems are rarely dangerous. The rate of violent crime in the general population is approximately 1 percent, while the rate for consumers is slightly less than 1 percent. Just as members of the general public are capable of violent behavior, people with mental illnesses are affected by the same factors that typically lead to violence (e.g. feeling threatened, excessive use of alcohol and/or drugs). Having a mental illness itself is not an indicator of violent or criminal behavior.

Myth #2: Mental health consumers are lazy and lack willpower.

Fact: Mental health consumers have made major contributions to society. As with any group, some famous people have experienced mental health problems. In fact, it was Clifford Beers, a consumer, who founded the mental health movement early in this century. Other well-known people who experienced mental health problems include: Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Manley, Ludwig van Beethoven, Leo Tolstoy, Isaac Newton, Patty Duke, Michelangelo, Ted Turner, John Keats, Ernest Hemingway, Michael Faraday, Mike Wallace, Naomi Judd and Dick Cavett.

Myth #3: Mental health consumers lack intelligence and are stupid.

Fact: People with mental health problems are as intelligent as the general population. Studies have indicated that people with mental health problems usually have an average I.Q. In fact, for people with certain disorders, the I.Q. level tends to run somewhat higher than that of the general population.

Myth #4: Mental health consumers cannot change.

Fact: With treatment, people with mental health problems can recover and return to healthy, productive lives. But people frequently avoid treatment because of the stigma attached. Getting help doesn't mean something is "wrong" with you.

Myth #5: Mental health consumers are responsible for causing their own illness.

Fact: Experiencing mental health problems is nothing to be ashamed of; it is simply one of the hazards of being human. People do not choose to have mental health problems. Mental health problems are not due to character flaws or weakness of will. Recent research has shown strong evidence of biochemical causes for some mental illnesses.

Myth #6: Mental health consumers can't be active members of their community.

Fact: People with mental health problems are capable of full community participation. Individuals with mental health problems may have to remain on medication to control their disorder and a small number may have to learn or relearn skills lost due to long, or frequent, periods of hospitalization. Acceptance by society is often their only hindrance. However, in a supportive community, people with mental health problems are fully capable of equal participation.

Myth #7: Mental health consumers are not like "normal" people.

Fact: Mental health consumers are an "invisible minority." You can't pick mental health consumers out from the crowd. They are ordinary people like you and me. They have dreams, hopes, aspirations and ambitions like most other people. They want to live fulfilling lives in their communities. They must sometimes put their plans on hold, or look for ways to accommodate their health requirements while pursuing their interests. Sometimes this means taking life at a different pace to sort out health concerns. A supportive community should be able to accommodate their special needs in the same way it provides assistance for physical disabilities.

What Can I Do?
My Role as a Palmetto Media Watch Member

1. Call or write the reporter or journalist and tell them who you are.
2. Tell what was done wrong and how it harms people.
3. Include a fact about mental illnesses.
4. Tell them how they can undo the damage.

Palmetto Media Watchers will learn from training and this manual to write effective letters that target news reporters and media executives, as well as businesses that inappropriately use mental illnesses to promote their products in advertising. There is a variety of media sources that can be monitored: TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, music, movies, theater, art, computer games, children's books and commercials.

As a Palmetto Media Watch member, you will be asked to carefully and critically monitor the media content of your choice. We suggest that when you first become a Palmetto Media Watcher, you start by becoming more attentive to your favorite media, whether that be a regularly watched TV program, the daily paper, or the movies. As you become more confident in identifying stigma this way, you may want to expand your monitoring activities.

When you find that mental health issues or people with mental health problems are portrayed inaccurately or negatively, write a letter or call the reporter saying so. If mental health is being portrayed in an informed, sensitive and realistic manner, we suggest you write a letter of appreciation or support for the reporter's or producer's effort. (The next section "What to Look For" helps you determine this.)

We also ask that a photocopy of letters you write be sent to the Palmetto Media Watch Coordinator, Office of Communications, SCDMH, P.O. Box 485, Columbia, SC, 29202. Once a number of people have written to address a particular topic, the Department of Mental Health may also respond to the issue.

In addition, we would appreciate any feedback you'd like to offer about this manual or about the program as you go along. How can we improve the training kit? What information is missing? What questions have we failed to address? Did we get anything wrong? Could something be changed to make this manual more user-friendly? Call us at 803-898-8581 and let us know.

Because of its binder format, extra sheets can easily be added. So if you feel that something should be added, just let us know, and we can keep this volunteer training kit "new and improved."

Facts and statistics can be used to strengthen the points you make in your letters to media producers. When responding to media content, take the opportunity to back up your instinctive feelings with facts in order to educate writers and broadcasters about the reality of stigma and mental illness.

Following this is a step-by-step process to be a Palmetto Media Watcher. Our efforts will be instrumental in "stigma-busting." Good luck!

Step 1
What to Look For
(Is it negative or positive reporting?)

Negative Reporting

Some characteristics of media content that are negative are listed below. Watch for stories, programs and images that:

* Reinforce misconceptions about mental health consumers (e.g. dangerous, weak).

* Patronize people who have no wish to see themselves as heroic, abnormal or different, but rather as regular people who have experienced mental health problems.

* Label people rather than their mental health problems (e.g. "schizophrenics" rather than "a person with schizophrenia").

* Use terminology that is demeaning (e.g. insane, psycho, schizo) or incorrect (e.g. "schizophrenic weather pattern brings sudden heat wave").

* Sensationalize an unrelated issue by referring to a person's psychiatric history. Link mental health problems irrelevantly to criminal behavior (e.g. "Manic depressive gets probation for shoplifting.").

* Use humor at the expense of another person's dignity (e.g. "Offering these low prices could get us committed.").

Positive Reporting

Portrayals of mental health issues and people who experience mental health problems have certain characteristics. Positive depictions:

* Put people first, not their mental health problems. The focus is on the individual rather than on the mental health problem or disorder, unless it is crucial to the story.

* Emphasize the whole person and show the mental health problem in context, as only one part of the individual's life.

*Show as many facets of the individual as possible. The emphasis is on talents and skills, not limitations. Most consumers lead meaningful, fulfilling lives. Reporting should reflect this by showing people with mental health problems as active members of society. Portraying them interacting in social and work environments helps to break down barriers and open lines of communication.

* Do not label people as part of a disability group, such as "the mentally ill." In both written and oral communication, use "a person or individual with a mental illness" or "people with mental illnesses."

* Let mental health consumers speak for themselves. Stories about mental health issues should contain information from a variety of sources, including consumers. All facets of a story have not been covered if the information is only provided by bureaucrats, professionals or people who have not experienced mental health problems themselves.

* Show consumers in a positive light. It is preferable to interview people who have recovered from, or are coping positively, with mental health problems. An individual's grief, pain or distress is personal and private.

*Are particularly careful with terms used in headlines. Remember that headlines make the first impression, and these have often in the past been used to sensationalize a story by using inappropriate terms for mental health issues. Ask yourself, "Is this headline consistent with the story?"

* Use words that accurately describe people and situations. Most people with mental health problems are neither super achievers nor tragic figures. They are ordinary people like you and me. Words should reflect non- judgmental, non- emotional and accurate descriptions.

* Keep up-to-date with current understanding and expertise in mental health. Positive portrayals do not reinforce out-of-date myths about mental illnesses.

* Use words consistent with modern use. For example, "person with a mental health problem" -- not `"maniac, psycho, lunatic or schizo"; "mental health care facility, psychiatric unit or rehabilitation facility" -- not "asylum" or "mental home."

* Use diagnostic categories only when this is relevant to the main "he has schizophrenia" is preferable to saying, "he is a schizophrenic."

* Do not link mental health problems with being dangerous. Mental health consumers are, statistically, slightly less likely to commit violent crime than members of the general public.

Step 2
Keep Track of Your Immediate Response

Instead of immediately channeling your criticism (or praise) directly into a letter, you may find it easier to organize your thoughts first by filling out a form (see following page). The next section suggests ways to understand why a particular media portrayal seems upsetting or offensive. However, some things may be obvious right away. When you see, hear, or read something in the media that needs to be challenged, try jotting down your answers to the following questions.

This form can also be used to jog your memory if you are unable to write your letter immediately. Keep a copy of the form at hand while reading or watching the media you've decided to target. Then, if you do come across something that you wish to dispute, you can get the details of it down while they are fresh in your mind. Later, when you write your letter, it will be easy to express yourself and you won't miss any details that you noticed at the time.

Go to Keeping Track Form

Step 3
Your Response

Getting Started
     Identifying a stigmatizing media portrayal about a person with a mental illness can sometimes be very easy; however, taking action on it by sitting down and writing a letter to the producer or writer of that portrayal can be an intimidating and uncertain experience for some people. If you feel this way, keep in mind one very important fact that will develop your confidence:

You are the expert when it comes to discussing stigma!

Journalists, novelists, newscasters, and producers of TV and movies may appear to be very accomplished and confident. But remember that they typically have had several years to develop their communication skills. They are still capable of making mistakes. Unless they have taken the time to study mental illnesses, they do not know as much as you do. Do not be intimidated by a polished style or brilliant prose, or feel you have to respond in kind. It is the substance of what they are saying that you are responding to. If what they are presenting is erroneous, remember that you have the correct information and knowledge that they do not have, yet.

Whether you are a consumer, family member, caregiver or concerned citizen who has educated yourself about mental illness, you are the one with the expertise. You have the experience, the learning, the understanding and the facts about mental illness to express an informed response and opinion about stigma in the media. Many of these writers and producers of media do not want to be insensitive, and they will appreciate having their awareness increased about their role in perpetuating stigma when they read your letter.

1. Organizing What You Want to Say
When you first recognize a stigmatizing media portrayal, you will often have a strong reaction: "That's wrong!" The Keeping Track form helps you to get down the facts of the content in question. It is helpful to further examine your reaction through "processing" so that you can effectively communicate why you know what you have seen/read/heard is wrong. Processing means taking the time to identify your feelings and your underlying beliefs that those feelings are based upon. Here are some suggestions to help your "processing":

Get into a discussion with a friend about your reactions. Bring some questions to the discussion that will help you clarify how you have identified the media portrayal as stigmatizing. Go ahead -- if you feel strongly about the media stereotype, you are probably going to talk to a friend about it anyway! For example, have your friend view or read the media portrayal with you.

Then take turns asking each other questions such as:

* "What do you find offensive?"
* "What does this particular image, terminology, joke, etc. imply about someone with a mental illness?"
* "Does the implication perpetuate one of the myths about a mental illness?"
* "If you were someone with a mental illness, how would this make you feel?"
* "If you were someone with a mental illness, would this story make you afraid or embarrassed to identify yourself as such in public?"
* "How could this story/image/portrayal be done differently to prevent stigma?"

As you talk with your friend, write down your answers. You may want to use them in your letter, or expand upon them.

If you don't have the opportunity to discuss the media story/image with a friend, you can write down some reflections to yourself. Again, ask yourself questions about what the stigma implies and what it means to the life of someone living with a mental illness.

2. Writing Your Letter
You have analyzed the particular media portrayal and have identified the stigma in it. You have also studied your own response -- thoughts and feelings -- towards it. Take a moment now to congratulate yourself. After all, here is an opportunity to educate someone with influence! Other people have seen or read this particular program or story; they might also be thinking what you are thinking. You, however, are going to address the issue.

3. Content
Point out any myths or stereotypes the media portrayal has perpetuated, and use the statistics, research and facts you have at hand to correct this erroneous information.

Example: "The Monday late-night movie on TV depicted a villain who was described as 'borderline schizophrenic' and who stalked the heroine for the purpose of terrorizing and then killing her. This perpetuates a myth that people with a mental illness are dangerous to society when, in fact, studies have shown that someone with schizophrenia is no more dangerous than the average law-abiding citizen, if on medication."

Express yourself in confident, firm statements that allow for open communication. It is better to try to develop a sense of empathy in your reader, rather than defensiveness. Try making "I" statements, rather than "you" statements.

Example: Not "You are a terrible, ignorant person to have implied that people with mental illnesses can't be trusted."

But rather: "The erroneous statements in your article add to the stigma associated with mental illnesses. If I were someone with a mental illness, I believe I would feel demeaned and disrespected, and would be afraid to seek help."

Be specific about your observations. Don't assume your comment is obvious. State what is offensive to you. General statements such as: "That article was disgusting" will not get as much consideration as: "That article portrayed a person whose mental health concerns had nothing to do with the subject matter of the story. This is inappropriate."

After you have written your letter, try to gain some objectivity to help you assess its clarity. Read the letter out loud to yourself, as if it has been addressed to you and you have never seen it before. Does it make sense? Do you understand what the message is? Do you feel the writer is making a valid point?

Finally, have someone whose judgment you trust read it. They might have some suggestions to make, but remember, this is fundamentally your letter!

4. Format
The first visual impression of your letter can be important. If someone you are writing gets a lot of correspondence, anything he or she receives that looks untidy or hard to read will be put aside on the "later" pile. Keep in mind:

* Place your name and address at the top of each letter you send.

* Use the full name of the radio station, TV station, newspaper, magazine, etc., when you write the inside address portion of the letter.

* Identify the particular program, documentary, ad, article, column, etc. that you are referring to, as well as the date of publication or broadcast, if possible.

* Double-check your spelling and punctuation.

* Make sure it is legible. If handwritten, the letter should be neat and tidy with no crossed- out words; if using a word-processor, check that the printer's quality is consistent, with no faded spots.

* Use plain, white paper if possible.

5. Time and Place
Be current. Do it while the program or ad is being shown, heard or published. Mail it today!

6. Copy Your Letter
It's a good idea to make two copies of your original letter, keeping one for your own files. Send the other copy to the Palmetto Media Watch Coordinator, along with a copy of the article or ad you are writing about if it's in the print media.

You may also want other people to know about incorrect portrayals of mental health issues, so you can send them a copy of your letter as well. Some examples might include: Mental Health Association in Mid-Carolina; NAMI-South Carolina, S.C. Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, or S.C. SHARE. Indicate at the bottom of your letter where copies will be sent.

7. Follow Up
This is important. You can ask for a response to your letter; for example, changes to programming or in an advertisement, or an airing or printing of your letter.

What if it's a positive and/or accurate portrayal?
     Feedback does not always have to be negative. A pat on the back for a positive and accurate image of mental health issues can have as much influence as a complaint.

Let the media know you appreciated the program you watched or heard, or the article you read, and commend them for their accurate, sensitive, realistic portrayal or presentation of information. In the next section, Sample Letter C is an example of a positive response to a positive portrayal of a person with a mental illness.

Go to Sample Letters

Mental Illness Statistics

Further Facts About Mental Illnesses
     We try to avoid the term "mental illness" because we are talking about a range of diseases that differs in the degree to which they can affect a person at different times during his or her life. Strive to say "mental illnesses," not "mental illness," or "a person with mental illnesses," not "the mentally ill." 

Most prominent among these are:

* anxiety disorders ... most common in U.S.A. (19 million people) and the most costly -- the three main types are: phobias, panic disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorders

* mood or affective disorders -- including depression and bipolar disorder

* types of schizophrenia -- symptoms may include hallucinations and delusions, not "split personalities "

* organic brain disorders -- such as Alzheimer's Disease

* eating disorders -- such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia

Anyone can have a mental illness, regardless of age, economic status, religion, color or gender. Just like our bodies, our brains are vulnerable to disease. Unfortunately, problems in the brain are not as easy to explain or understand as illnesses in other parts of the body, as the brain remains somewhat mysterious to us. Through dispelling myths and educating the general public, we hope to promote awareness and understanding of people living with mental illnesses.

Who is Most at Risk for Mental Illnesses?
Mental illnesses can affect anyone at any time during his or her life. Approximately 44 million adults and 13.7 million children have a mental illness .

Prevalence of Mental Illnesses in South Carolina

* Approximately 139,000 South Carolinians have severe, long- term mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and severe depression.

* Mental illnesses affect one out of five families in South Carolina.

* Approximately 120,000 children in South Carolina have a mental illness.

Social Costs of Mental Illnesses
Ignoring mental health problems is costly to our society -- both financially and socially. Employee absenteeism due to stress and depression costs businesses millions of dollars every year. And relationships with family, friends and co-workers suffer in the attempt to cope with a mental illness.

The stigma associated with mental illnesses is a major social cost. Widely-held misconceptions about people with mental illnesses include beliefs that they are dangerous or violent; that they lack intelligence; and that their conditions are not treatable. Research shows that the stigma or shame associated with mental illnesses is identified by Americans as the number one reason why people don't seek help from a mental health service.

The personal costs of mental illnesses are incalculable. Because of stigma, many people who could be helped suffer in silence and isolation. Relationships among family, friends and co-workers are often strained, leading to broken marriages, job and housing losses and substance-abuse disorders.

The effects of stigma can be felt in many areas of a person's life.

Economic Costs of Mental Illnesses
* A National Institute of Mental Health sponsored-study revealed that mental and addictive disorders cost over $300 billion annually.

* Nationally only $14 is spent for research for every person diagnosed with schizophrenia, yet schizophrenia alone costs the nation some $30 billion annually.

* Cost to the nation of untreated severe depression alone in 1990 was as much as $44 billion.


Similar media watch programs exist all over the country, with volunteers working to reduce the stigma of mental illness. The National Stigma Clearinghouse in New York has set out three goals:

1. End the exploitation of mental illness for humor, sensationalism or in routine dramatic formulas;

2. Encourage portrayals of people with mental illnesses as human beings rather than as caricatures; and

3. Promote accuracy in the use of medical terms associated with psychiatric conditions.

Once you focus on stigma-busting, it probably won't be long before you come across a media portrayal of mental illness that begs to be pointed out and corrected. It is important to keep in mind that harm or insult are rarely intended -- the blame usually rests on habit, stereotypes and ignorance.

"Maybe he ran into an escaped mental patient with an ax."
Murphy Brown

"Kathleen Turner plays one of the screen's most delicious lethal schizophrenics since Norman Bates."
Promotion for 'Serial Mom,' a film whose vicious main character had nothing to do with mental illness.

"It doesn't matter. We'll just tell them that Christmas is next Tuesday."
Doogie Howser, M.D., when the hospital is about to run out of gifts before reaching the psychiatric ward.

The Palmetto Media Watch program can't wait to hear from you! Good luck! And don't hesitate to contact our Palmetto Media Watch Coordinator if you have any questions.


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