Thursday, June 24, 2010

Labels, Choice and the Response to Stigma

by Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Executive Director

The two smiling women are pictured with their arms around each other. Both are wearing t-shirts, each bearing a single word. Sounds like a pretty innocuous picture, doesn’t it? Add to the image that one of the women’s shirts says “bipolar,” and you have a photograph that causes strong reactions, different reactions, in members of our community.

NAMI has received many impassioned responses to the picture—which depicted actress Glenn Close wearing a “sister” shirt alongside her sister, wearing the shirt listing the bipolar illness she lives with. Whether you are for or against this tactic, Close’s organization, BringChange2Mind would probably count any reaction to their anti-stigma PSA as a success. Their intent is to create dialogue around mental illness by bringing the issue into the public eye. Close described her response to stigma in a Boston Globe interview as "Say it loud, say it again and again until it has lost its power over us. Make the unspeakable speakable."

This “talk therapy” approach is similar to the one advocated by another celebrity-run cause, No Kidding, Me Too. Started by actor Joey Pantoliano, who lives with depression, the organization seeks to address the isolation that can be caused by “the scarlet letter of mental illness.” Dedicated celebrities, especially those who are either living with a condition or have a family member who is affected can be powerful voices for change—who doesn’t remember the contribution that actor Michael J. Fox made to his cause when he chose to come forward as someone living with Parkinson’s Disease?

The key here is in the choice: Fox chose to publicly disclose his condition, just as Glenn Close’s sister chose to don a t-shirt reading “bipolar” and appear in photographs and a public service announcement. Nobody wants to be objectified or forced to “wear” a label that someone else has devised for them. The people in the BringChange2Mind video showed up at Grand Central Station wearing condition-specific shirts because they believed by getting these words right into the middle of society they are effectively taking the “scarlet” out of those letters.

Others have felt as though they or someone they love have been captured in that photo wearing a label someone else stuck around their neck—on a visceral level it feels like stigma to them, a lack of understanding comes from without. In reality, the way you choose to react to stigma—either by disclosing or not disclosing your condition—is personal, just as personal as the experience itself.

NAMI recognizes that stigma can and does cause a lot of distress for people in our community, but we also recognize that the fight against that stigma does not have a “one size fits all” solution. We welcome your responses to all our features because no matter how many different ways there are to get there, we all share a common goal: improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness.


Anonymous said...

So Glenn gets to be a relative and her sister gets to be an illness.

Glenn's sibling is a SISTER with bipolar. She is not the disorder.

She copes with it, she lives with it, she rises above it, but she herself is not the malady.

You've completely missed the mark on this one, NAMI. said...

For me, the journey of mental illness, has been a path that took a dramatic turn when I stopped being my illness. This included honoring myself as a unique and spiritually sensitive child of God. I stopped being a survivor, changing my personal frame of reference. I feel that all of us must not only survive but Prevail over our circumstances. Joan

Whippies said...

I think it is great that Glen Close has chose to support NAMI and NAMI Walks and start her own anti stigma campaign. Hopefully, she made a large donation as other figures usually do to a nonprofit organization. I did not hear mention of donation. But I believe that is a crucial part of a celebrities gift - to be able to give back part of the fortune her fans gave her.

The Bipolar shirt that Glen's sister wore did bother me. I was trying to find a positive aspect to it. Then I thought it shows a sister who loves and accepts her
sibling with a disease (but that was stretching it)..... I am open about my illness with family and friends and advocate others to - but I do not want to wear one of those t-shirts. If attention is what you want - I'm sure those shirts did it.

I participate in NAMI WALKS and have a difficult time wearing my NAMI shirt. It is my belief that
this great organizations name is outdated. We are speaking of stigma and anything with the phrase Mental Illness has a negative connotation to me. The fact that NAMI has alot of time and money in that brand recognition is not enough to me to keep a name that instills stigma.

THe name has been changed before and probably will again as we learn more about these diseases in the future. But these diseases are
medical, biologic and chemical.
I suggested National Association of Brain Disorders - as I read more frequently in the literature.
But Mental Illness is outdated. It does not reflect a medical, biologic or chemical disease.

I think perhaps we need to do more fundraising so we are not wanting
to hold onto something we have outgrown. Maybe fundraising activities could be incorporated into the community groups somehow.
Thanks for listening.

Anonymous said...

The thing is about the t-shirts being made, is that for severe illnesses like schizophrenia and possibly others, the person does not like to acknowledge they are ill. They don't want to believe it and even get defensive with being told that.

So, I am glad that Glenn Close's sibling accepts her illness and the diagnosis...would I dare approach the family member I have with schizophrenia, asking them to wear a t-shirt labeling a disease they don't even accept they have?

Anonymous said...

It's the context that is important. The sister has chosen to embrace her condition and put a human face with the word. That's what will destroy stigma. You have to admit: "Bipolar" with a human face behind it is more dramatic, with greater public impact than "A sister with bipolar disorder," even if you could fit it on a T-shirt. Besides, what should NAMI have done: air-brushed out the slogan from the T-shirt? That would be worse: alter the reality of what Bring Change2Mind is doing? Let's stop hiding and arguing among ourselves: it's the bigger public attitude we should be addressing.

Chris said...

Having read the previous responses to the article, I'm not quite sure what to say except for the following. I AM MORE than my mental illness and/or brain disorder. I don't particularly care for labels. BUT if you must label me, then my first preference is "child of the Living God" and if that's too offensive then my label needs to be person or human being. Those are the only labels I will accept.

Anonymous said...

Wearing a shirt that says Bipolar or whatever the case may be isnt no different than the looks you would get by wearing a t shirt that says "Feel Your Boobies" That in itself brings light to breast cancer and reminds women to feel their breast.

Wearing a shirt with Bipolar maybe it would strike a change for people to do some research about it, learn about it, and not just stick a label on someone..... Its all about raising awareness RIGHT?

Contributors: said...

Dear Whippies,

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. As you may know, the NAMI National Convention was last week, so forgive us for not having responded to you earlier. The language issue is one of the most common subjects of debate within our community. We are planning on running a special blog post about the language question so that people can express their views on the subject.

Anonymous said...

I think you are missing the point of the ad. At the end, the shirts fade out to normal clothes. They are trying to show the public that people with mental illness are more prevalent than anyone realizes. In addition, they are trying to say that we shouldn't hide our illness because that continues the atmosphere of stigma, but be open to it. They will be the first ones to tell you that we are more than our illness.

Anonymous said...

I agree with other posters that the NAMI name is outdated and stigmatizing. Lets hear some suggestions and start working on the goal to change the name.

Anonymous said...

How about working against mental illness stigma WAMIS

Anonymous said...

In the commercial the white labeled shirts turn into colorful shirts without labels. In that sense it's an effective, powerful message about how people who live with conditions like this are just like everyone else. Unfortunately real shirts don't change color. As a person who is successfully living with bipolar disorder I would never wear a shirt like this although I might wear a shirt that says something like "I might have bipolar disorder but you're an idiot and I can take meds." ;-)

Anonymous said...

The fact that people within our own group feel stigmatized by the NAMI name is very telling. We still allow what others might think to scare us. Stigma must be fought everytime someone is looked down upon or discounted because he has the guts to acknowledge the disease in himself or his loved one. The point is to someday have mental illness accepted as a disease like any other and not be afraid to speak the words. Shame on those who feel like the problem with NAMI is the name.

NAMISSoC said...

There was a recent survey noted in Science Magazine news that stigma is on the decline. Advocates such as Glenn Close should be credited for a valiant effort to reduce the stereotypes associated with mental illness.