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

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Major League Baseball Raises the Bar for Mental Health Support

 by Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Executive Director

One of my favorite fall traditions is tuning in to watch the exciting postseason Major League Baseball (MLB) games.

The 2010 World Series is fast-approaching and while the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers are each hoping to be named American League champion, and the Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants vie for the National League title, there are also some really encouraging off-the-field developments to report.

MLB is setting a new standard in professional sports by acknowledging and supporting athletes who struggle with mental health problems.

This month’s NAMI Advocate magazine explores some of the ways in which MLB’s culture of silence surrounding mental illness is now evolving into a culture of understanding and support.

Stigma can be a barrier to anyone seeking mental health treatment, but as a society that holds professional athletes up on pedestals, I think we sometimes forget that athletes face many of the same challenges that can affect any of us in our personal lives, including mental illness.

Unfortunately, the pressure to appear strong and invincible sometimes deters baseball players and others from seeking mental health support when they need it.

A baseball player’s job performance, unlike most of our work, is played out in front of tens of thousands of fans, night after night, in between coast-to-coast travel. Long stretches of time away from family and friends at home add additional stresses. In the past, baseball players with mental health issues often felt they could not share their struggles, fearing that mental illness will be perceived as a weakness and not an illness.

While a culture of silence once deterred people from seeking help, MLB is working to offer avenues of support.

Today, players can now take time off to address any mental health concerns, using resources from the team franchise or elsewhere, in the same manner they would use for any other illness or injury.

Five players were on the disabled list (DL) for emotional issues during the 2009 season-- the most in any single MLB season to date. While this number may not seem impressive, it’s the largest number in any single season to date and indicates that gradually players are becoming more comfortable in seeking mental health support.

We appreciate the work MLB is doing to encourage players to get help when they need it, as we all know early interventions have the best outcomes. We also hope that as more players and athletes in other sports come forward, that they will encourage their own fans to seek help if they or a loved one need it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Get Ready. Get Set. Vote on Election Day.

by Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Executive Director

Election Day, November 2, is less than three weeks away. Let’s all focus on what’s at stake in the final stretch.

No matter how tired we might be from “horse race” headlines or candidate attack ads, Election 2010 is critical to saving mental health care. Medicaid and state mental health services, which have faced devastating budget cuts in the last two years, provide greatly needed support for people living with mental illness.

Mental health is a federal, state and local concern. So please look closely at candidates for U.S. Congress, governorships, state legislatures, county boards and city councils.

In recent weeks, NAMI has issued a series of Election 2010 press releases urging editors, reporters, bloggers and others to ask candidates about mental health. Between now and Election Day, you might also want to circulate the following press releases in your community.

You can also raise awareness about election issues related to mental illness with these three activities:

  • Browse websites for candidates running for statewide and local offices. Become familiar with their statements on issues, particularly budget priorities, health care, housing and education.
  • Discuss your impressions with family, friends and others. Talk with candidates if you get a chance. Personally, as a former state legislator, I have always found it most important to ask people what they are for rather than against in order to build common ground.
  • Ask family members and friends whether they intend to vote and encourage them to exercise this right. Remind them on the Sunday and Monday before Election Day. Help people get to the polls by offering them a ride or helping with caregiver responsibilities. Go to vote with a group of friends­—stop for coffee and make it fun.

NAMI is non-partisan. We don’t endorse political candidates. We do, however, know that mental illness does not discriminate. It affects Republicans, Democrats and independents alike.

See NAMI’s “Vote Mental Health” website for information about the voting rights of people living with mental illness and other policy issues. And please remember to vote on November 2!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

NAMI’s Family-to-Family Educational Program: Consciousness-Changing for Caregivers

Joyce Burland, Director
NAMI Family-to-Family Program
by Joyce Burland, Director of NAMI's Family-to-Family Program

The story of Family-to-Family, NAMI’s educational program for families of people living with mental illness, is a story that has spread through the grassroots grapevine and is now the subject of several empirical studies, the most recent of which published preliminary findings in July. No other national peer-taught course has ever reached this stage of being recognized as an evidence-based practice. If we are now able to say that our twelve-week course lowers participants’ ratings of anxiety, distress and depression, it is because our volunteer work force has been so dedicated to maintaining the fidelity of a program that enables families to come out of the dark and deal much more directly with the realities that they have—a change in consciousness that would sound mystical if you didn’t know how much on-the-ground work it takes.

The journey from pain to empowerment

Caring for an ill family member can take a toll—according to NAMI’s Depression Survey, 50 percent of caregivers who responded had been diagnosed with depression themselves. I remember a mom and dad in one of my classes who brought their son living with schizophrenia to the class with them. He sat in the car with his dog while they attended Family-to-Family—a practice they utilized everywhere they went because he was too anxious to stay alone. They had not had any respite from being caregivers for over a dozen years. This couple did not know how to give voice to their son’s needs. By the end of the course they had become advocates for him. He was doing better on a new medication that they had determined from information in the class might work better; they had gotten him a case manager, and at their urging, his sister had become much more involved as a helper and friend. In Class 12 they announced they were going to take  their first vacation  away together in  13 years—a step which represented a real sea-change in their lives.

Given the isolation and silencing we experience as families caring for loved ones with mental illness, it is quite a journey from ignorance to empowerment. When families come to us, most are still immobilized by trauma and know absolutely nothing about mental illness or the existing  resources for helping their family members. In the recent study, scores on constructive emotional focusing were higher after taking Family-to-Family, as was the rating of participants’ skills related to family functioning. Many participants tell us that this effect is exponential. We aren’t just teaching the people in the room—they, in turn, are reaching out to the rest of the family.

Part of the Family-to-Family model of recovery from trauma includes a last step in which you say, “Oh, now I understand the meaning and significance of what has happened to us—what I’ve learned through my troubles can help someone else.” Years ago when the program began, I was sure of this one thing: family members would make ideal teachers for other family members. The fact that Family-to-Family will soon celebrate its 20th anniversary is a testament to the staying power, the gumption and dedication of NAMI members. Some teachers have been with us for 25 or 30 classes. Approximately 40 percent of teachers themselves live with a mental illness in addition to being caregivers. They have made the name NAMI known in local communities all over the nation by sustaining a free resource for families that does not exist anywhere else.

Training “troublemakers”

In a perfect world, relieving caretaker burden and helping families and consumers revive the joys of their lives, in spite of mental illness, would be enough. But in an era of unprecedented service system failure affecting the people we love, much more is required. In NAMI’s vital and incomparable studies of Grading the States over a period of the past 5 years, the national grade for mental health services remains stuck at D. The families we teach need help they cannot find from community clinics and providers working overtime to manage funding cutbacks further shredding the safety net which now exists. This is where the “personal gets political”, for we cannot  avoid coming clean with the families we teach that the services they require  are services they often can’t get, and to secure them we must still fight for them. That’s the reason why NAMI members advocate: That’s why we’re always fighting in state legislatures not to cut funding. We know squeaky wheels get the grease and so we encourage people to squeak. I do not consider any class I teach to be an unqualified success unless at least 4 or 5 troublemakers come forward to serve as outspoken advocates in our movement for change.

In this regard, I am always reminded of the marvelous statement by the late, great Senator Paul Wellstone from Minnesota, who spoke of his own passage after his brother became ill with schizophrenia. He declared, “It shouldn’t be this way. I wish I’d gained my understanding of this subject solely through research and ethical inquiry. But for many people, the problems of mental illness are still utterly abstract, and their urgency becomes apparent only through intense involuntary immersion in them. We need an education initiative to pave the way for a legislative one.”

A community of understanding

So we can say that over the past 20 years, NAMI family member teachers have become experts on helping other family caregivers come through this involuntary immersion and regain their footing on NAMI’s solid ground. They have created a community of understanding where the same change in consciousness occurs over and over, year after year, in town after town. As I get in the car tomorrow night to go out and teach the Family-to-Family class  in Santa Fe,  I’ll be thinking that literally 3000 other NAMI members are getting in their car to go teach their classes too. In our case it’s in a schoolroom, where 22 people will be there waiting for us to help them discover a way to help their family members more knowledgably and effectively while attending to their own needs to live a joyful and purposeful life.