Disney/ABC Marginalizes Mental Illness In Tasteless Modern Family Episode


An Open Letter to Anne Sweeney, Co-Chair Disney Media Networks President, Disney/ABC Television Group

Dear Ms. Sweeney,

I am writing to ask why Disney/ABC Television ridiculed and marginalized our nation’s veterans and millions of other Americans during the October 29th broadcast of its prime time television show, Modern Family.

Twenty-two veterans commit suicide each day in our nation. Nearly all have a diagnosable mental illness. Many have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that they suffered fighting for your safety and freedom. Yet, the writers of Modern Family: Halloween 3: AwesomeLand decided to make these proud warriors the butt of belittling jokes.

In the episode, Claire Dunphy decides to create the most frightening house in her neighborhood by transforming her front yard into a “scary insane asylum” complete with “deranged mental patients,” a “sadistic nurse” and “demented doctor.” The episode features daughter Alex chained to a hospital bed and Luke wearing a straight jacket – images that are intended to make viewers chuckle. Words such as “nut job, Looney Bin, cuckoo” are sprinkled throughout the dialogue — less viewers forget that nothing is more frightening than someone with a mental disorder.

The episode’s writers clearly understood their script was demeaning to individuals with mental illnesses. As part of a plot twist, the Dunphy’s neighbor, Amber, “goes ballistic” and has her feeling hurt by the front yard display because she once was in an “insane asylum” for six months. Her husband tells viewers that he will calm her down by giving her a box of cereal and putting her in front of a fish tank, further portraying her mental condition as a joke. But don’t worry, Amber’s claim turns out to be a ruse. She really wasn’t one of those “whack jobs.”

Is it any wonder that individuals who have a mental illness, such as my son, often are reluctant to seek treatment because of stigma associated with their disorders? Is it any wonder that employers are reluctant to hire persons with mental illnesses, such as my son, because of untrue perceptions fostered by shows such as yours? (Persons with mental illnesses are no more likely to be dangerous than anyone else and, in fact, are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.) Is it any wonder that our wounded warriors suffer in silence because they are afraid that if they reveal they are having re-occurring nightmares or suicidal thoughts they will be fingered as one of those deranged patients your writers were so quick to skewer? Do you realize that 40% of the first responders after the Twin Towers collapsed during 9/11 developed PTSD? Perhaps your writers would like to write a sequel episode ridiculing Robin Williams.

Words matter. And your writers’ words hurt people and fostered prejudice.

On your corporate website, you boast that the Disney/ABC Television Group “proudly supports various non-profit organizations in their endeavors to make the world a better place.” Are you making the world a better place by belittling the one-in-five Americans who experience some sort of mental illness each year?

All of us know someone with a mental disorder, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, panic disorders, Autism, eating disorders and PTSD. These are not scary “deranged mental patients,” they are our sons, daughters, parents, friends, and co-workers.

Given the popularity of your show and power of your network, more than an apology is in order. I would suggest that you act on your pledge. You should make a generous contribution either to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health America, or BringChange2Mind, three organizations that fight stigma every day. You should also require the writers of this tasteless and offense segment to attend a local NAMI meeting where they can learn more about mental illness and stigma.

A leader sets the bar. I challenge you to speak out publicly against hurtful language that stereotypes and marginalizes people who deserve and need our support and understanding. Shame on you if you don’t.


Pete Earley


Ben Bradlee: A Swashbuckler Editor Who Inspired His Writers


10-27-14 The last hurdle you faced before you were hired at The Washington Post was a face-to-face interview with Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee.

In late 1980, I arrived at his office ready for a confrontation.

My good friend, Ward Sinclair,  a Post investigative reporter who was shepherding  me through the hiring process, had warned me that Bradlee often glared at a wannabe hire before asking, “Why should I hire you?” Depending on his mood, he might phrase it as “Why in the hell should I…”

Ward said it was Bradlee’s way of seeing if a news reporter had a spine. Bradlee didn’t like reporters who were easily intimidated.

Thanks to Ward, I’d come prepared for my interview. Inside my shirt pocket was a list of stories that I planned on showing him when Bradlee confronted me. I had practiced my reply. “Because I can write stories like these better than anyone else.”  It was known in journalism circles that Bradlee loved  what he described as “holy shit” stories – ones that would make readers utter those expletives when reading them.

I took my seat before the legendary editor ready to pounce. Glancing at me over his reading glasses, he said: “I don’t think I’ve ever hired anyone from Tulsa, Oklahoma.”

I replied in a loud voice: “Why not!”

I was reaching for my story list when I realized that my accusatory reply had surprised Bradlee — and not in a good way.  I immediately explained that I had been tipped off about his gruff interview tactics.

Bradlee broke into a smile, mentioned that he had a bad cold and told me he didn’t have the energy to be abrasive.

Despite our initial exchange, he hired me.

Benjamin C. Bradlee was the first blue blood I’d ever met and he shattered all of my images of what that pedigree represented. Martha Sherrill described him best in a tribute that she wrote for The Washington Post Style section on the morning after he died at age 93.

His rakish persona was the real thing, seemed sprung from his marrow, as though somebody in his noble ancestral line had bedded (one of his favorite words) a pirate or gunslinger.

I was not close to Bradlee, and certainly was not part of his inner circle. To be truthful, I was not liked by three of his closest associates. But when I worked at the Post my exchanges with him were always cordial and memorable and when I asked him to autograph a copy of his autobiography, Ben Bradlee: A Good Life, he wrote: “For Pete Earley: A longtime friend and colleague.” He had a way of aspiring young reporters, of driving us to be better. He loved being a newspaper man more than anyone I’ve ever met. And he always defended his reporters when they were criticized, even some that history later showed didn’t deserve his loyalty.

I worked for him between 1980 and 1986. Those were the Post’s best years and I became a better reporter because of him. 

(Bradlee will be buried this coming Wednesday.)

Encore Performance of THIS IS MY BRAVE: Two Women Who Are Making A Difference

I talk all of the time about how one or two persons can make a difference in their communities.  That’s why  I wrote several blogs last year about THIS IS MY BRAVE, a Virginia non-profit organization founded Jennifer Marshall and Ann Marie Ames.

A popular blogger (www.bipolarmomlife.com), Jennifer joined forces with Anne Marie last year and raised more than $10,000 in 31 days on Kickstarter to finance a professional quality stage show that featured performers talking about their mental disorders and recovery.

A sold out crowd of more than 400 attended the group’s debut performance. The show received considerable media attention. Encouraged by their success, Jennifer and Anne Marie, kept going.

A second performance of THIS IS MY BRAVE will be performed Sunday, October 26th, at 3:30 p.m. at Briar Woods High School in Ashburn, Virginia, a Washington D.C. suburb. Jennifer and Anne Marie also have launched another Internet fund raiser, this time on Indiegogo to raise $15,550, which they will use to stage THIS IS MY BRAVE performances in Washington D.C., Boston, and Iowa City.

I will be attending Sunday’s show in Ashburn where my son, Kevin (Mike in my book) will be performing a rap song about his mental illness. Please tell your friends about this show!

I receive mail each week from people who want to help fix our mental health system. Supporting THIS IS MY BRAVE financially or by auditioning for it is an excellent way to do that.

Jennifer and Anne Marie are outstanding examples of individuals who put their words into action. Congratulations to both for their determination in giving a voice to those seldom heard!

What Voices Do We Hear?


10-20-14  The first review of RESILIENCE, the memoir that I helped Jessie Close write, has appeared and it’s complimentary.

The reviewer calls the book, “an honest tale” and notes that Jessie “holds nothing back.”

“The author candidly discusses her multiple marriages and her continued inability to understand her alternating manic and depressive states, which appear to have escalated in intensity with age. It was only when her son, Calen, was hospitalized and eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia that Close began to look more seriously at her own extreme mood cycles and seek permanent help to stop her abusive drinking and to silence the voice in her head that insisted she kill herself. With the help of her sister and family, Close was able to afford good treatment for herself and her son, and Close’s sister went on to establish the nonprofit organization Bring Change 2 Mind, which targets the stigma and misunderstanding surrounding mental disorders.

The critic concludes, “the book is packed with emotion and courageous personal reflections.”

That’s heady praise from a critic whose job is, well, to criticize.  But the review did contain one tiny barb.

The critic wrote that our book got off to a slow start because we spent a few initial pages explaining Jessie’s lineage. The reason why we included her lineage is because one of her relatives had a serious mental illness that went untreated –a nugget we felt needed to be explained – but a connection the critic failed to grasp.

The fact that I was bothered by the critic’s one jab in an otherwise flattering review prompted me to think about how I handle criticism. And that thought eventually caused me to wonder about how someone with a serious mental illness deals with a voice inside their head that is constantly criticizing them.

I have interviewed dozens of men and women who are hearing voices. I’ve never met anyone who heard a voice praising them. Jessie is a good example. When she was manic, the voice in her head was telling her to kill herself.

We describe this in the opening paragraph of RESILIENCE:

“Kill yourself! Kill yourself! Kill yourself!”

I couldn’t stop the voice. It was struck in my skull like a bad song, playing over and over and over again.

“Kill yourself! Kill yourself! Kill yourself!”

Those commands were being screamed at me by the Creature. It was pure evil. It was in my head, just behind my left ear. It was terrifying. Worse, it would not stop screaming.”

I once asked a friend, who is black and grew up in the South, how he overcame the racial slurs and attacks aimed at him. He said the criticism didn’t bother him because he didn’t respect the racists attacking him. The opinions that mattered to him came from his family and members of his church.

Thinking of the creature in Jessie’s head and how my friend had overcome racist attacks as a young boy gave me perspective. It also reminded me that it takes courage, if you have a serious mental illness and are hearing voices, to not let them destroy you.

One way we can help someone who is hearing destructive voices (in addition to traditional treatments, such as medication) is to provide them with a supportive environment that counters those screams in their head. We need to be the “church members” and the “family” that tells them the negative thoughts in their heads are unmerited.

We need to be the voices that they hear.

RESILIENCE goes on sale January 15th.


Why I Am Proud To Support NAMI


10-17-14  FROM MY FILES FRIDAY: Four years ago, I explained in a blog why I am a lifetime member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).  I occasionally receive emails from readers grumbling about what NAMI either has or hasn’t done.  But nothing that has happened since I first joined NAMI has caused me to lose faith in it. Perhaps this is because the heart of NAMI to me has always been its people and the common goal that all of us share: helping persons with mental illnesses. Patti and I support NAMI monthly with a donation because I believe in NAMI and its programs.

NAMI Helped Me, first published June 28, 2010. **

When I was a Washington Post reporter, I did not believe in joining groups or organizations. I needed to be independent in order to be objective. Then my son, Mike (Kevin), became sick and the first thing I did after I finished writing my book, CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, was join the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI.)


The first reason was a selfish one. I was not the first parent to be completely baffled by our badly fractured mental health system. Nor was I the first to have a son become entangled in our criminal justice system because of his mental disorder. I realized that other parents would be the best guides for me when it came to helping my own son. They would understand my fears and the emotional roller-coaster that I was riding. They would be able to offer me advice that was based on practical experiences.

I also realized that being involved in NAMI would help me keep my son’s problems in perspective. Oftentimes, when I would feel as if I had hit bottom and was losing hope, I would attend a NAMI meeting and listen to someone recount what had happened to their son or daughter. Stories about recovery gave me hope. Stories with less happy outcomes made me even more determined to change our system. I marveled at the resilience that NAMI members showed. I remember listening to a mother in Miami whose son refused her help and was homeless for 12 years. She drove by the corner where he panhandled on her way to  work each day and often arrived at her job in tears. I remember  two parents in Philadelphia whose only son committed suicide. They were both psychiatrists yet they could not save him.  I remember a telephone call that I received from parents whose son was on death row.

I also heard incredible stories of recovery, such as: the wife who had been involuntarily committed more than a dozen times but had been doing well for the past two years and was back with her family; the father who’d returned to work after battling major depression; the graduate who’d recovered from a debilitating breakdown after having been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

NAMI became, for me, a lifeline.

Which brings me to some of the other reasons why I am so proud to be a lifetime member of NAMI.  NAMI offered me  excellent educational programs. Family to Family is a course that helps parents and siblings deal with having a loved one who is sick. In Our Own Voices is a fantastic speakers’ program that puts a human face on mental illness by having consumers deliver positive testimonials that prove recovery is possible. Stigma-busters helps educate the media and fight prejudice.  Peer to Peer training is helping transform mental health services by giving persons with mental illnesses a strong voice in their own treatment and the recovery of others. NAMI Walks raises much needed money and increases public awareness. I am especially proud of how NAMI has reached out to different ethic groups and has been active in explaining the importance of understanding cultural diversity in treating mental disorders. And, of course, I can’t mention NAMI programs without talking about its leadership in pushing Crisis Intervention Teams, perhaps the most successful program in America when it comes to educating law enforcement and helping bring a team approach to solving community mental health problems.

Having spent 36 years in Washington D.C. as a reporter and at one point covering the U.S. Congress, I understand the importance of having a strong advocate on Capitol Hill and NAMI has been an effective  voice there for all of us.  One of NAMI best tools in both educating the public and exposing our failing system has been its Grading the States report, which gives a report card grade to every state based on how well it is doing. These grades have gotten widespread coverage in the media because they expose how much we need to do to repair a mental health system that has been described as being “truly insane.”

Of course,  NAMI isn’t perfect. None of us is happy about how much of NAMI’s budget comes from big pharmaceutical companies. We also disagree in NAMI, often heatedly, about such emotional topics as involuntary commitment, self-determination, assisted outpatient treatment, the continued closing of state hospitals, and even expanding the role of consumers within our own ranks. But even during the worst of these arguments, when I have stepped back and taken a deep breath, I have realized that everyone in the room feels passionate because they care so deeply about persons with mental disorders. Our hearts are in the right place and that is what bonds us together.

I like to say that NAMI is not like the ski club or your local wine tasting group. Few of us joined because we thought, ‘Hey, that looks like a cool group to attend.” But since I became a member, I have made friends with some of the finest persons I’ve ever met and that has been a much treasured bonus.

Because of my book, I have been able to visit NAMI chapters in 48 states and the one commonality that I have found is determination. Against some of the cruelest challenges and indignities that life can slap them with, NAMI members pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and like a boxer who doesn’t know when to quit, they stand up and prepare for another punch.  We are relentless because we must be. We are hopeful because we believe in recovery. And we are successful because we know that our course is just, fair and right.

**This version has been updated and edited.


Courageous Judge Administers Justice In Horrific Police Shooting

It was a horrific crime.

Voices inside Kashif Bashir’s head were saying his brain was being reprogrammed. If he wanted to reach a higher state of consciousness, he needed to commit three violent acts – a robbery, a rape, and the shooting of a police officer.

The 29-year-old cabdriver bought a pistol and drove to a shop in a Washington D.C. suburb where he intended to rape an employee. She persuaded him to leave the store and then locked the door after he did.  He returned the next day and noticed a police officer inside the shop.

The shop employee told Alexandria Officer Peter Laboy about Bashir’s strange behavior. The 46-year-old officer gestured to Bashir who was in his cab, but rather than stopping, the cab driver fled. Officer Laboy went after him and when Bashir finally stopped his vehicle, he emerged from behind the wheel with a pistol and shot Laboy  before he could dismount from his motorcycle. The bullet struck the father-of-four in his skull. Bashir sped away, leaving Laboy critically wounded.  Bashir was caught after he crashed his taxi.

Miraculously, Officer Laboy survived but not without lasting damage. He has a traumatic brain injury.

Bashir was forced to take medication in jail so he could be made competent to stand trial.  Knowing that jurors rarely believe an insanity defense, Bashir’s attorney requested a trial before a judge. The case ended-up on Alexandria Circuit Court Judge James C. Clark’s docket.

Bashir was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Commonwealth Prosecutor Bryan Porter didn’t dispute that, but he argued that Bashir was tailoring his behavior to fit the insanity defense. The cabdriver’s actions were “so planned and predatory that they belie the term criminal insanity,” he said.

Forensic psychologist William Stejskal testified that Bashir did not understand what he was doing at the time of the shooting because of his mental illness. He “believed that something else entirely was taking place.” He thought Laboy would reappear elsewhere. Bashir’s family testified about his traumatic childhood and deteriorating mental state.

A former police officer himself, Prosecutor Porter told Judge Clark that Bashir had not appeared mentally unbalanced when he was buying a handgun. After shooting Laboy, Bashir had been mentally aware enough flee from the police, which suggested he recognized the difference between right and wrong.

After reviewing the testimony, Judge Clark ruled that Bashir was insane at the time he shot Officer Laboy. Bashir was remanded to state mental health officials.

Comments posted in response to a news story about the trial written by Washington Post reporter Matt Zapotosky were predictably critical. One writer suggested the police should be slow in responding if Judge Clark or his family need help in the future.

Shootings of police officers always are heartbreaking, especially this one. What happened to Officer Laboy is awful.

But Judge Clark made the right call.

A common misconception is that individuals with mental illnesses are always out-of-control and acting oddly. This simply isn’t true. I have interviewed countless individuals who appear quite normal but are hearing voices and delusional. I didn’t think one young man was ill until he began telling me about “mazers” the CIA was firing into his head. Many homeless, severely ill individuals know where to go for meals, shelter, and which library will permit them to come inside from the cold if they sit quietly and don’t disturb others. The fact that Bashir could appear calm when buying a gun isn’t that surprising. Nor do I believe his fleeing after shooting Officer Laboy suggests that he understood right from wrong. I remember meeting a psychotic inmate who’d murdered a close friend because his mind told him an alien had entered his friend’s body. The police were aliens too so, of course, he ran from them.

Another common misconception is that defendants who are found insane have beaten the system. Had Bashir been convicted, he would have been sentenced to prison for a fixed term. While there, he would not have received any meaningful treatment. After he completed his prison term, he would have been released without any restrictions or monitoring. Plus, he would have been sicker than when he was sentenced.

Because Bashir was ruled insane, he will be sent to a locked state mental facility where he will be evaluated, medicated, and required to attend 20 hours of treatment a week. He will not be discharged — if he ever is — until a Virginia judge (not a doctor) decides that he no longer poses a threat. Even then he will be discharged under strict conditions and monitoring.  Chances are Bashir will be filled with remorse once he is well enough to comprehend what he has done

Judge Clark could have bowed to political pressure. Neither Bashir nor his family appeared to be wealthy nor did they seem politically connected. Instead, Judge Clark followed the law.

His decision doesn’t diminish the horrific harm done to Officer Laboy.. As Judge Clark stated, “To characterize this case as a tragedy, I would suggest, grossly understates the facts.” But the judge’s decision was not only the most humane, it was the most effective at protecting the public. What Judge Clark did was administer justice rather than vengeance.

That takes courage.