What Can I Do?
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;
What Are We Fighting?
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
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?
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.
Some characteristics of media content that are negative are listed below. Watch for stories, programs and images that:
Portrayals of mental health issues and people who experience mental health problems have certain characteristics. Positive depictions:
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.
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
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?"
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
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?
* 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
6. Copy Your Letter
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
What if it's a positive and/or accurate portrayal?
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.
Mental Illness Statistics
Further Facts About Mental Illnesses
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?
Prevalence of Mental Illnesses in South Carolina
* Approximately 139,000 South Carolinians have severe, long- term mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and severe depression.
* Approximately 120,000 children in South Carolina have a mental illness.
Social Costs of Mental Illnesses
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
* Nationally only $14 is spent for research for every person diagnosed with schizophrenia, yet schizophrenia alone costs the nation some $30 billion annually.
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:
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."
"Kathleen Turner plays one of the screen's most delicious lethal schizophrenics since Norman Bates."
"It doesn't matter. We'll just tell them that Christmas is next Tuesday."
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.