Using Music to Combat Stigma

Without a journey there’s no return

It’s the inevitable way of growing up

        Lyrics from “Listen” by Tiago Bettencourt and Cool Hipnoise

Encontrar+SE, a grassroots mental health advocacy group started by Filipa Pahla in Portugal, recently found an imaginative way to fight stigma. A few years ago, Filipa persuaded twenty of her nation’s most popular singers and song writers to participate in a ten-month long, anti-stigma campaign. 

A different artist performed an original song each month about mental illness. The song writers were asked to compose lyrics that first described a problem and then offered a solution. The songs were broadcast on the radio and in music videos on television.

The first three songs introduced listeners to mental illnesses. The themes were : Discriminating/Integrating, Denying/Accepting, and Separating/Uniting. 

The lyrics emphasized that mental disorders are actual illnesses and not someone’s choice. Because they are  illnesses, the people who get them should not hide in denial, be discriminated against, or be separated from society. Mental health should be viewed as being part of overall health — the mind and body together. The heart can get sick and so can the brain.

The next five themes discussed prejudices  — Fear/Understanding, Guilt/Tolerance, Shame/Acceptance, Dependence/Autonomy, Offend/Respect.

The final two themes focused on recovery — Despair/Hope, and Loneliness/Fraternity. 

Because the artists who participated were already top-selling performers, their songs became instant hits. A study found that 68 percent of Portugal’s population ages 15-years-old and up were exposed to at least one of the songs.

In addition to releasing a new song about mental illness each month, ENCONTRAR+SE put them on a CD. A DVD was made that included the music videos.

Filipa also got the musicians and song writers to talk openly about mental illnesses  during TV, radio, and newspaper interviews. More than 100 blogs in Portugal wrote about the anti-stigma campaign as well.

Filipa’s anti-stigma campaign in Portugal was so successful that she is hoping to organize a world-wide anti-stigma effort patterned after international benefits that concerned performers such as Bono of U2 have done for Africa. 

“We can do it,” she told me during my recent trip to Porto.

How can she be so confident?

Because many of the world’s greatest writers, singers and entertainers have a mental health diagnosis such as bipolar disorder, depression and even schizophrenia. They are no more immune than anyone else.

The first step in fighting stigma is to get people to speak out and use their talents and clout to say there is nothing shameful about having a mental disorder — the only shame is in not helping those who do.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.

  • Ladybehindthemask

    interesting … a way to try to create a “public space” for people with MI who aren’t disabled / frightening / dangerous. I keep looking at our community and comparing with gay community in the 1940s / 1950s. We’re equally closeted, equally fearful, and with as good reason. Jobs are at stake. So even though suicide kills as many people as AIDS / HIV in this country, it’s not a public health crisis and MI is marginalized for research funding. Maybe now that brain injuries are causing MI among returning soldiers and retired NFL players, it will finally get some attention.

  • Ladybehindthemask

    interesting … a way to try to create a “public space” for people with MI who aren’t disabled / frightening / dangerous. I keep looking at our community and comparing with gay community in the 1940s / 1950s. We’re equally closeted, equally fearful, and with as good reason. Jobs are at stake. So even though suicide kills as many people as AIDS / HIV in this country, it’s not a public health crisis and MI is marginalized for research funding. Maybe now that brain injuries are causing MI among returning soldiers and retired NFL players, it will finally get some attention.

  • Ladybehindthemask

    interesting … a way to try to create a “public space” for people with MI who aren’t disabled / frightening / dangerous. I keep looking at our community and comparing with gay community in the 1940s / 1950s. We’re equally closeted, equally fearful, and with as good reason. Jobs are at stake. So even though suicide kills as many people as AIDS / HIV in this country, it’s not a public health crisis and MI is marginalized for research funding. Maybe now that brain injuries are causing MI among returning soldiers and retired NFL players, it will finally get some attention.