Sunday, November 5, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Stigma Busters' Fight Ads That Make Light Of Mental Illness -- Citing False Portrayals, They Go After Ads, Media

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

When John Deere advertised its new Tricycler as "the world's first schizophrenic lawn mower" because it claimed that three different mowers lived inside, Stacie Larson went into action.

Not only had John Deere trivialized mental illness, she wrote the company in a letter, but the ad furthered the misconception that schizophrenia is a multiple-personality disorder.

Then she noted what schizophrenia is: a painful brain disease that leaves people powerless to use their minds capably. Finally, she noted with irony, if such a disease could inhabit John Deere's machine, rendering it powerless, she certainly wouldn't want one.

Deere apologized. And it destroyed the ad.

Another mental-health stigma busted.

Stacie Larson, of Lacey in Thurston County, is one of a loose, nationwide network of volunteers - they call themselves "stigma busters" - who are vigilant for what they view as inaccurate, demeaning and hurtful portrayals of those suffering from mental illness.

Their targets have included Nike, "Grace Under Fire" on ABC-TV, "ER" on NBC-TV, "60 Minutes" on CBS-TV, the "Look and Find: Mother Goose and Her Nursery Rhyme Friends" publisher, McDonald's restaurants and many others.

They are supported in their efforts by a little-known nonprofit organization, the National Stigma Clearinghouse. Based in New York, it grew out of a project begun in 1989 by the New York State chapter of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill, an organization of families that have members who suffer from a mental illness.

"We came to grips with the fact that there was a flood of mental-illness stereotypes that was overwhelmingly negative," said Nora Weinerth, Clearinghouse co-founder. The project was started to track and combat those negative images.

When a negative mental-health stereotype is spotted, stigma busters usually write or call the offending organization, pointing out inaccuracies and explaining the damage being done when the pain caused by the stigma seems worse than the illness itself.

That's what Weinerth did when Nike began a "Just Do It" magazine ad campaign. She had received complaints about the text referring to "voices telling you to throw a fastball, just do it. . . . Crazy people talk to themselves; it doesn't matter." She also criticized Nike's billboard campaign for a shoe described as having multiple personalities. Those afflicted with the disorder don't find such ads funny, Weinerth noted.

Nike pulled the billboard campaign, revised some ads insensitive to mental illness and sent a letter apologizing for its ignorance.

The Clearinghouse's approach doesn't always succeed. It failed to dissuade Nike from using a Super Bowl ad that depicted Dennis Hopper as a crazed fan.

And Carol Stoddard, an Oregon stigma buster and office coordinator for Oregon Alliance for the Mentally Ill, couldn't persuade Denny's to discontinue its Grand Slam breakfast campaign, which trumpeted that Denny's must be out of its mind to offer such a cheap deal.

"We thought it was obvious that we were poking fun at ourselves," said Karen Randall, spokeswoman for Flagstar, Denny's parent company. But because of the concerns, she said, the commercial has been revised to downplay the insanity factor.

Weinerth knows her organization's mission strikes some as yet another effort to create "politically correct," inoffensive communication. But she doesn't view it that way.

"It's not a question of political correctness. It's a question of accurate reporting," said Weinerth, a writer who says she is sensitive to concerns about censorship.

One of every five families

Mental illness should be dealt with accurately and when germane to the matter at hand, she says. If a news report, for example, notes that a criminal suffered from a mental illness, the report should describe the illness accurately and describe its relationship to the crime - if there is a relationship. If the disease had nothing to do with the crime, then it is irrelevant to the story.

Weinerth believes that inaccurate depictions encourage people to discriminate against and exploit the mentally ill, who now can be found in one out of every five families in the U.S.

Targets of groups such as Clearinghouse sometimes complain that they are being asked to sanitize their messages, with little appreciation for creativity or humor.

"Consumers are getting tired of advertising that's `good' for you. They want to be treated like adults who can and do make their own decisions," Lawrence Ricciardi, the president of RJR Nabisco, told a gathering of advertising executives, according to news reports.

Silence equals assent

Haig Bosmajian, a University of Washington professor who has studied stigmatization and language, noted that campaigns to curb certain speech can get ridiculous. But he also believes people cannot remain silent in the face of language they find offensive.

Those who remain silent when characterized derogatorily assent to it, he said. And language can be used to stigmatize a population, as Hitler did with the Jews, he said.

"My position is that as long as we're not getting state-imposed censorship, people should be free to write letters and register protest," he said.

One measure of negativity about mental illness has been documented by George Gerbner, dean emeritus of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Drawing upon 30 years of studying television images, Gerbner's reports conclude that the mentally ill are the most stigmatized group on television.

On prime-time TV, 45 percent of normal characters engage in violence, Gerbner noted. But of the mentally ill depicted, 70 percent are violent. On Saturday-morning children's shows, nine out of 10 characters depicted as crazy are violent, he added.

And positive depictions of the mentally ill are rare. Among all characters, for every 10 heroes there are two villains, Gerbner said; for the mentally ill, 10 of 11 characters are villains.

"The (Clearinghouse) group, and other groups, have very valid concerns. These images damage many families," Gerbner said.

Laurel Lemke of Tacoma knows the sting of the stigma.

The 42-year-old professional speaker and consultant, who lives with a bipolar illness, manic depression, remembers the office visit of a co-worker's son. She offered to show him around. He drew back.

"My mom said I shouldn't get too close to you because you've got a mental illness," she recalls, the pain still lingering in her voice.

And there was the time she was being considered for a consulting position in a prestigious hospital psychiatric wing. She told a doctor of her illness and the medication she took to manage it. "He freaked," she said.

Lemke decided she needed to fight the stigma. In addition to being a stigma buster, she speaks to audiences about those who suffer with mental illness and the stigma they face.

"I listen to Cindi Rinehart who summarizes soap operas on TV," Lemke said. "A character in a soap has a multiple personality and Cindi delights in these multiple personalities. People call in and find it amusing. I've worked with people with multiple personalities. They're in pain. And it's not funny." ----------------------------------------------------------------- A guide to terms

From a writers guide to derogatory and preferred mental-health terms, issued by the National Stigma Clearinghouse: -- Slang words: psycho, schizo, wacko are considered demeaning. -- Labels: loony bin, insane asylum, funny farm. These terms are considered humiliating. Preferred terms: hospital or psychiatric hospital. Also, labels that equate people with their illness - schizophrenic, manic depressive, depressives, the mentally ill - are viewed as dehumanizing and offensive. Instead, refer to a person with a specific condition. -- Psychotic and psychopathic are not the same: Psychotic refers to a period of disorientation in the course of illness like schizophrenia, manic depression or depression. The condition is usually treatable. Psychopathic refers to a pattern of antisocial behavior, not usually treatable. -- Schizophrenia: Treatable. Strikes one in 100 Americans, typically between 16 and 25 years of age. People experience episodic psychotic symptoms such as hearing voices, disorientation, inability to tell the real from the unreal. -- Major depression: Also known as unipolar. Strikes one in 16 Americans of all ages and can be recurrent. Causes intense, prolonged feelings of hopelessness and functional disruption. Eighty percent are treatable. -- Manic depression: Also called bipolar. Treatable. Typically appears before age 35. Affects one in 100 Americans. Cycles of disabling depression and frightening highs.

For more information: National Stigma Clearinghouse, 275 Seventh Ave., Attn: Lobby Desk, New York, NY 10001. Or call 212-255-4411.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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