March 2, 2011

The New “Normal”

I asked a friend for some advice on what I should blog about and he recommended: “The King’s Speech and how it won recognition for stutterers. We need a movie to do the same for mental health.” Realizing that movies, television and other aspects of popular culture can go a long way when it comes to making something “normal,” I momentarily forgot  that I had not seen The King’s Speech or paid any attention to the ripple effect that it has had in the greater community. I said “Sure! That sounds like a great idea!” Then I set out to educate myself (in this case via The Huffington Post):

The Los Angeles Times reports:

The movie’s kind of like a “Rain Man” for the stuttering world, [Stuttering Foundation President Jane] Fraser said in a phone chat earlier this week. “We have a world-class, superb actor showing us how devastating it is to stutter,” she says. It doesn’t hurt that he’s playing a king who’s leading a country against Hitler.

The foundation has received a flurry of media attention and a spike in donations in recent months.

According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy:

In February the Stuttering Foundation of America received $25,000 in donations versus the $10,000 it received in February 2010. “So that’s tremendous,” [Fraser] says. “We’ve seen an increase in new donations. Something like 80 percent from last week, from people that had never donated before.”

So when Colin Firth wins an Oscar for a performance in a movie that moves speech impediments into the social discourse, it works magic. That’s fairly self-evident. For another example, look at how Glee chose to focus a series of episodes on gay bullying after so much had been in the news on the subject. When we can talk about a fictional event as opposed to something actually going on in our lives, it gives us enough distance to tackle an uncomfortable issue t

When a TV show like House decides to highlight the mental health of its title character, it improves the basic knowledge of all its viewers. I frequently get asked whether or not my stay in a mental hospital was anything like Hugh Laurie’s fictional visit and if my counseling appointments go anything like his did. It helps make the intangible tangible to folks who have never had to deal with any of these issues.

Now, we can’t rely on popular culture to completely remove stigma from mental health issues. Sometimes they even do more harm then good. What we can do is monitor for opportunities for discussion and take advantage of them when they arise. It may seem simplistic to believe that adding A Beautiful Mind and It’s Kind of a Funny Story to your Netflix queue to watch with friends will make any sort of a difference, but we need to take advantage of any small chance we get to move this conversation forward. It’s one thing to talk amongst ourselves and support one another (which we should always and forever continue to do). We need to continue to look for any and all ways to reach the people who aren’t already having these conversations and pull them into the dialogue. It’s going to to take everyone we can get to fully eradicate mental health stigma.

I would love to know about any experiences you’ve had watching movies/TV shows with a mental health component to them. Do you think that we could start conversations this way? Share in the comments!



  1. “Six Feet Under” had a really interesting storyline involving mental illness. Two characters were dealing with the ups and downs of recovery, and near the end of the series we hear them talking about how the meds make them feel, and why they decide it’s worth the payoff anyway. It seemed to me that they could understand each other on a way no one else in their families could – and that acceptance grew from that support. I wish, for my son Ben, that someday he may find that kind of peer connection and support, along with what he already has: the love and respect of his family (which we rediscovered through education and NAMI).

    Comment by Randye Kaye — March 2, 2011 @ 9:22 am

  2. I have made 2 major documentaries on the subject & stunned at how huge the impact & how they’re both used so effectively for fundraising & education. First one for HBO was w/my brother who filmed the 1st 10-yrs of his battle w/schizophrenia – People Say I’m Crazy. Latest was PBS’ When Medicine Got it Wrong about terrible impact of stigma & advocacy’s success in motivating dramatic change in medical understanding in the last 20 years.

    Like you – still waiting for a high profile narrative/feature film to do compassionate portrayals. Television is making inroads (yay). Sadly, when we’ve been approached by narrative-feature producers re: licensing my brother’s story – the decisions not to pursue, in the end have come down to the fact that he isn’t “schizophrenic enough” – basically that he hasn’t committed terrible violence so there’s “not enough drama.” Ouch.

    Other sad comment: when fundraising for both films, got turned down many times by progressive organizations who said that mental illness is not a social justice issue. Amazing: homelessness is social justice, but root cause of a big percentage (lack of treatment) isn’t. Until stigma among people who can fund films w/accurate portrayals changes – those of us with skills to tell more stories are terribly hamstrung.

    Comment by Katie Cadigan — March 3, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

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