ACA Blog

Kathy Renfree
Sep 27, 2010

Stigma, Silence, NAMI and You

I feel I have tried to be acutely aware of negative comments and representations regarding people with mental illness. The words psycho, nut job, head case and wacko are often bandied about with little regard for the damage they do. As a counselor, I have had friends (!) and relatives (!) wonder how I could sit there with “those people”, and wasn’t I afraid “they might snap”. Or how “that mumbo jumbo makes things worse”, everyone “just needs to toughen up” and “get on with their lives”. Insensitive and disrespectful judgments, opinions, and labels exist in all forms of media – music, movies, print and online. However, I found they also exist in our profession.

In a conversation with my friend, also a counselor, I shared with her my most recent observations of subtle and not so subtle encounters with negative comments and representations. I described what I noticed during a training I attended hosted by a relief organization. The audience, I explained, was mainly first responders, those people that would have first contact with people in crisis, whether from a weather event, accident, terrorist attack, or natural disaster. A few of my colleagues, other mental health professionals were also in attendance. We were the minority. During the training one of the presenters mentioned, “we needed to be careful and not use the words mental or psych because it might scare people from taking a referral to speak with a mental health professional.” All of this said by a mental health professional.

I gave another example, about the time I attended a CEU event where the presenter clarified that when doing work with business professionals try not to talk about mental health or psychological help. This too by a mental health professional. The last example I shared was a photographic essay titled “We’re All Crazy for Eva” in an online fashion magazine. It portrayed the actor as a patient in a “mental ward”, handcuffed to her bed, hovered over by a “nurse”, sitting despondently in a wheel chair, and appearing to try and “break out” from behind the bars of the locked gate.

I told my friend that these examples of insensitivity really bother me, and that I especially could not believe that other mental health professionals and counselors were doing this. That is when she asked me the fateful questions: When you were there at the training and CEU event, what did you do about it? Did you say anything? That was the moment I knew that by my silence I was perpetuating the stigma with mental illness and its treatment. It was time for me to speak up.

Since I am a member of NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, I receive email updates on a number of topics. One of the many important issues that NAMI tackles every day is the stigma of mental illness. NAMI StigmaBusters is “a network of dedicated advocates across the country and around the world who seek to fight inaccurate and hurtful representations of mental illness.” I signed up for StigmaBusters alerts some time ago. It was because of a recent email alert that I was aware of the online photo essay. So rather than clicking delete, this time I wrote an email to the magazine about their “We’re All Crazy for Eva” article.

In my email to the online magazine I wrote that I was a mental health professional, “who, as a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, is weary of the media using themes associated with people that have a mental illness to sell a product, titillate, or be "eccentric and quirky"…I bet if everyone that worked for your magazine sat down and reflected for a moment about their friends, family and acquaintances, they would realize that they know someone that has been touched by mental illness. I also bet that they would not feel too good about their friend or family member being portrayed and displayed in the manner shown in your magazine. Please think before you shoot, and write and publish. What you consider creative is disparaging of all human beings with a mental illness and their loved ones.” I clicked send. I have yet to receive a response. Nor do I think I will get one. Whether or not I get a response from the magazine does not really matter. What I know now is that the questions posed by my friend, challenged me to stand up for what is important and right. That stigma, the perpetuation of it, by everyone and anyone is wrong. My silence spoke when I did not. It is time to change that for good.

I challenge you to be aware of stigma and speak up. For more information, follow this link:

Mental Illness Awareness Week 2010: October 3-9, 2010

Kathy Renfree is a counselor in a community mental health setting, teaches in a graduate counseling program as needed, and is looking forward to building a private practice.

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