Wednesday, October 27, 2010

NPR’s CEO: Playing the Stigma Card

by Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Executive Director

The controversial firing of National Public Radio senior correspondent Juan Williams over remarks he made about Muslims on a Fox News show has brought a lot of heat on the public network lately. Williams’ comments are still up for debate, but comments made about his firing by NPR CEO and president Vivian Schiller were undoubtedly offensive and outrageous. Schiller told news media that whatever Williams thinks about Muslims should be between him and “his psychiatrist or publicist—take your pick.”

Schiller’s remarks pull “the stigma card,” suggesting mental illness to discredit a person rather than debating issues on their merits. In a letter to Ms. Schiller, I noted the chilling effect that her remarks, coming from a CEO, could have on any employee who might live with mental health problems.

NAMI has asked not only for a specific apology to all individuals and families affected by mental illness, but also for NPR to begin taking steps to reassure employees about workplace standards underthe Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Below is a copy of my letter. I welcome your comments. If you share NAMI’s outrage, I encourage you to send your own letter to Ms. Schiller.

October 26, 2010

Ms. Vivian Schiller
President & CEO
635 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20001-3753

Dear Ms. Schiller:
On behalf of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and its 1,100 state and local affiliates across the nation, many of them served by NPR affiliates, I take strong exception to the improper and destructive nature of your recent remark in the midst of a professional termination dispute with an NPR news analyst, in which you told the news media that the employee’s feelings on a controversial topic should have been kept between himself and his “psychiatrist or publicist.”

The remark forced a public response from the employee saying that he does not have a psychiatrist.

NAMI does not take a position on NPR’s underlying controversy. We also acknowledge your swift, subsequent statement that you “spoke hastily,” apologizing to the employee “and others” for the “thoughtless remark.” However, NAMI remains greatly concerned about the cruel signal the incident has sent to millions of Americans—and its chilling effect both on people seeking help for mental health concerns and their expectation of privacy and support in employment relationships.

Indeed, we believe the remark may violate the letter and/or spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—risking creation of a hostile work environment, flowing from the top down through NPR and its affiliates, for any employee who lives with mental illness.

The remark perpetuated the kind of stigma surrounding mental illness that NAMI, Congress and consecutive presidents have worked hard to eliminate. It also was sadly inconsistent with NPR’s own stellar record of reporting fairly, accurately and compassionately on issues related to mental illness.

NAMI asks for more than a general apology. We would appreciate a specific apology to individuals and families who often struggle against stigma in their daily lives. We also ask NPR to adopt a plan no later than its November 2010 board meeting with affirmative steps to educate and reassure its managers and employees about protections and practices under the ADA.


Michael J. Fitzpatrick, M.S.W.
Executive Director

cc:Joyce Slocum, VP for Legal Affairs and General Counsel


Anonymous said...

I too was offended by that comment. Good for NAMI for calling it out!

Anonymous said...

NPR is racist for firing a black man :) (See? Sounds stupid when we say it... sounds stupid when the left calls us racist for not liking Obama...)

Theresa said...

Thanks NAMI for calling NPR on this. I was surprised with the CEO saying this - when times get tough- true colors come out.

As a mental health consumer who is okay saying I have a psychiatrist, it just reinforces the risk of being a disclosed consumer.

I hope NPR responds in a way that demonstrates it was not what she meant to say evidenced by action for education.

I hope she does not compound the damage but again insulting us by saying we are "too sensitive."

Insulting persons with mental health challenges as if things don't affect us like normal people- only further stigmitizes.

Ms Schiller: here's your chance.
Thanks TM Carlisle, PA

Anonymous said...

I am so glad that somebody has the guts to finally stand up for NAMI and their feelings about people with disabilities. The wonderful country has beaten the people down about not being perfect! Way to go NAMI!

Anonymous said...

As a mental health consumer, I was also offended by this comment. I applaud NAMI for confronting NPR and Vivian Schiller about her prejudiced statement relating to people with mental illness and its implications from the standpoint of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

princesspeon said...

I too appreciate NAMI calling attention to this. Her comments not only reinforce stigma, but they insinuate that having a mental illness is some sort of character flaw. It will be interesting to see if there is a response.

Anonymous said...

my exact words when I heard the CEO's comments on a news report...."What a cheap shot....I can't believe she said that...!" I'm glad NAMI pointed out her inconsiderate comment.

susan said...

It's enough for NAMI to have a reaction to the comment, and I'm glad a letter was sent. Making too much of that statement without referencing the catalyst seems almost political.More than most organizations, I'd appreciate NAMI staying out of partisan politics.

susan said...

It's enough for NAMI to have a reaction to the comment, and I'm glad a letter was sent. Making too much of that statement without referencing the catalyst seems almost political.More than most organizations, I'd appreciate NAMI staying out of partisan politics.

Jan Marie said...

That letter was -very- well written. I hate when people make off-handed comments like the one Ms Schiller made. Or they'll say someone is bipolar if they change their mind about something (which shows a huge ignorance about what bipolar even IS), or "someone forgot to take their meds this morning" when a person is having a bad day.

Judge Judy is a great example. I stopped watching her show because I got so sick of her saying things like "Did you just come out of a mental institution? Do you have psychiatric problems?" to someone, and when they say no (of course they're going to say no, even if the answer is yes), she says "Right, then you must be lying if you're not crazy, because I don't believe you." But that's Judge Judy, her show is all about ratings, which she achieves by being as obnoxious as possible. But we DON'T expect it from a place like NPR! I really hope that apology letter is forthcoming...

Anonymous said...

Um, NPR was referring to the confidentiality between a person and a psychiatrist.
Don't make a mockery of mental illness to score political points. I was offended by NAMI for writing an absurd letter. We need advocacy for the mentally ill, but obviously NAMI is not the source we need.

Seattle Mama said...

I agree with anonymous, the comment was most likey meant to reference doctor-patient confidentiality. The CEO could have said "priest" instead "psychiatrist", would you have been outraged by his offensive attitude toward Catholics? I am both a supporter of NAMI and a person with a mental illness and I am embarasses by this overreaction.

Anonymous said...

I have serious mental health issues: bipolar I, rapid cycler with mixed states. I have to take medication every day for the rest of my life. And let me tell you that NAMI's remark is the one I find offensive.

They meant that the guy is not in a position to say publicly his remarks. His 'Feelings' are personal and confidential, between him and a therapist (the comment implies that confiding in a therapist was meant, not psychiatrist as in needing medication), if he has one, and not for the general public while he is representing NPR.

I feel that NAMI is belittling my real struggles here. Do people that run NAMI really understand the problems of the mentally ill anymore? I am both angry and embarrassed by their comments.

Anonymous said...

I think the CEO's comment occurred while also discussing charges of erratic or unstable professionalism. It wasn't just confidentiality, which was why Juan Williams was forced to respond. For the CEO of any company to publicly refer to an employee having or needing a psychiastrist while being fired is simply wrong and against the law. What message does it send to anyone else in the company who may be deciding whether or not to seek help themselves for depression or anything else? People shouldn't have to be afraid. NPR needs to clean up the damage and set an example as a leader. NAMI is doing its job by asking them to do that.

Anonymous said...

I, too, did not take offense to the comment. I, too, felt that the comment was referencing the kind of confidentiality that is inherent to the doctor-patient relationship or publicist-client relationship. NAMI is a great organization so I'm not going to bash it, but I just had to let you know that I did not find the comment offensive, at all, and I am an educated mental health consumer!

Which leads me to another point....We are not supposed to say words like 'crazy' and 'whackjob' yet these aphorisms have a legitimate place in human speech. When we use these terms we are usually referring to a person whose behavior or speech does not make sense to us. It is outlier behavior or speech, and that is the main point. Sometimes I think we are too sensitive about these things. I am a mental health consumer who uses the term 'crazy' to mean something about others' behavior or speech that I just cannot fathom. Anyone got a better word for that? I don't take 'crazy' personally at all. It's just a figure of speech, but I also understand how it can be offensive to some. Just wanted to offer a different point of view.

Anonymous said...

I am offended that the moderator screened my comment which found the NAMI letter baffling and insulting to the mentally ill.
NPR clearly was referring to the confidentiality between patient and psychiatrist.
NAMI has little remaining respect among mental health professionals, and you have lost the remaining suppoirtr by allowing the mentally ill to be used as a political ploy.

oldskool_guy said...

I was already upset over Schiller's comment, seeing its high-profile use of stigma for what it is. Personally, I think Dr. Fitzpatrick could have legitimately used much stronger images and language than he did.

I saw a revival of the same attitude used in the Soviet Union by which they placed dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. "You don't agree with our way? You're obviously 'crazy' and need treatment."

Others may disagree with me, but that's how I call it.

Anonymous said...

I agree with those who have commented that Mr. Fitzpatrick's response to NPR was over the top. I don't think mental illness was implied in the reference to a psychiatrist. That usage seemed to mean to resolve fears in private while the reference to publicist seemed to mean to spin them politically correctly. The statement from NPR could have been worded better itself but does seem to encourage treatment for more than mental illness, which NAMI should recognize as a valid need.

Anonymous said...

I think you're really overreacting. Her comment does nothing to demean the mentally ill.

Contributors: said...

In response to Anonymous 10/29 at 11:09 AM: NAMI does its best to moderate comments according to generally accepted standards of good taste and open discussion. We do get a fair number of inappropriate responses, so we're sorry if your comment got put in that category inappropriately, or if your standards are not the same as ours. If you'd like to contact us to discuss the matter personally, you can do so at

wheelchairs said...
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Anonymous said...

Dont we have bigger fish to fry????
Many many in jail not getting treatment.

There will always be comments that offend
my energy cannot be wasted here, so many to help so little focus