The Day Stigma Ends

I’m always eager to testify or speak on Capitol Hill about the need for mental health care reform. Last week, Reps. Grace F. Napolitano (Ca-38 District) and Timothy F. Murphy (PA-18 District) invited five speakers to talk at a briefing sponsored by the Congressional Mental Health Caucus, which they co-chair.

Members of Congress don’t  show-up at briefings very often — at least the ones that I’ve participated in. When they do, they generally only stick around long enough to make a statement. After that, they move on to another event.  That’s fine because the most important faces at a congressional briefing are the legislative staff members. They’re the ones who actually draft legislation.

Rep. Napolitano said she first became alarmed about mental health services in 2001 when a report showed that nationally one-in-three Latina adolescents had contemplated suicide. Napolitano used her clout to get suicide prevention programs implemented in 11 schools in her Los Angeles area district.  She also revitalized the Congressional Mental Health Caucus and began hosting  briefings about children’s mental health, veterans’ mental health, and adolescent suicide prevention.

Rep. Murphy’s interest was prompted by the three decades that he worked as a psychologist in Pennsylvania.

About seventy staff members attended the briefing, which was prompted by the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (Ariz-8th District)  and the killing of six others in Tucson.  Its purpose was to provide information about violence and mental illnesses.

David L. Shern, Ph.D, the president and CEO of Mental Health America, made a statement that I found interesting.

Half of all people with a mental health diagnosis first experience it by age fourteen, but will not receive treatment until age twenty-four…Just as we have tests for hearing and vision, we need to have mental health check-ups with effective follow-up to reduce the prevalence and disability associated with these developmental disorders…Perhaps a mental health check up would have identified the alleged Tucson shooter earlier in his life and averted the current tragedy.

Dr. Shern argued that schools should do mental health screening  just like many of them now do screening for sight and hearing problems.

His comments dovetailed perfectly with remarks made by Rep. Napolitano about a bill that she has introducted called the Mental Health in Schools Act.  Although it has gotten stuck in legislative limbo each congressional session, Napolitano said she will keep introducing it. Her bill would require public schools to perform mental health screenings and mental health educational programs.

My son, Evan, added a readers’ poll last week to my webpage. I’d like to know if you think having adolescents screened in public schools for mental disorders is a good idea?  When I began writing this blog last January, I had less than one thousand readers. At the start of this year, that number has grown to nearly 10,000. Please express your viewpoint in our poll.

Panelist William Hudock, the Senior Public Health Advisor in SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services,  talked glowingly at the briefing about Mental Health First Aid USA, a 12-hour training program that teachs lay people how to recognize the signs of mental illness and assist someone who may be in the early states of developing a problem. He explained that persons trained in Mental Health First Aid can help de-escalate problems until a professional can take charge.

If you are familar with Mental Health First Aid, tell us about it by making a comment at the end of this blog. Was the program helpful? If so, how?

My job on the panel was to speak about stigma, which I was happy to do. But I also noted in my comments that our panel did not have anyone on it with a mental health diagnosis. I know the panel was organized in a rush, but the lack of a consumer was unfortunate. 

One of the most common forms of stigma is the exclusion of persons with mental illnesses from discussions about mental disorders. This is a hold-over from the days when patients were supposed to sit quietly and let doctors’ do their jobs. In the case of mental disorders, it’s also rooted in the idea that persons who are mentally ill aren’t sharp enough to participate. 

Obviously, if someone is so sick that they are not thinking clearly, then others need to step in. But most people with mental disorders have the symptoms of their illnesses under control and they are and should be our best spokespersons.

If someone wants to know what it is like to have a mental disorder and face stigma, it makes sense to ask someone who has recovered from a mental disorder and has been harmed by stigma.

During the briefing, I said that one way to fight stigma is by changing the face of mental illness. We need to change it from the mug shot of the Tucson shooter and pictures of the Virginia Tech murderer to a more truly representive image.

Whose face would that be?

 How about television journalist Mike Wallace, N BC’s Jane Pauley, the NFL’s Terry Bradshaw; Actress Patty Duke, novelist William Stryon and scores of other dynamic leaders, such as Elyn Saks, Kay Redfield Jamison, Fred Frese. 

I ended my ten-minute talk by saying that stigma in this country against persons with mental disorders will truly be over when members of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senators –and even presidential candidates – can acknowledge openly that they have grappled and recovered from a mental disorder.

That will be the day when stigma finally dies.

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.


  1. LadyBehindTheMask says

    Stigma will die when the faces of mental illness aren’t (1) criminals who generate stigma, (2) disabled consumers, who are less affected by stigma and (3) consumers so famous that their name is their brand and no one can afford to stigmatize them. Stigma will have died when ordinary working professionals like me can get out from behind our masks without losing our jobs … which I already know from experience can happen. Since the medicalization of MI in the early 1990s, stigma has gotten worse, not better … go figure. So maybe eventually I’ll organize a masked ball so we can show our numbers. Because we can’t afford to show up at NAMI / MHA etc.

  2. Stigma will stop and help will come, when we as a nation label Mental Illness as a disability and call it Mentally Disabled, the stigma comes from the term Mentally Ill.

  3. RE: screening adolescents for mental illness in public schools–the key phrase in Dr. David Stern’s quote (CEO of Mental Health America) is “with effective follow-up”. Currently when school counselors, psychologists or other staff express concerns about a student’s mental health, all too often that student does not receive help. Unless the student presents a clear danger to himself or others, parents are free to ignore the advice/opinion of school staff. Even if a parent does want to pursue evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment, the lack access to timely, affordable, and appropriate services in many communities makes this nearly impossible. Still, if we can help even a small percentage of students it would be worthwhile.

    • Exactly what I am talking about…easy to say there is a problem, extremely difficult to find the right help that doesn’t cross into “corrections” programming which is about all that is offered in MN…

      M.I. will not be such a stigma when we decriminalize it…WE don’t lock up cancer patients receiving in-patient care…I think we do need to reinvent what in-patient care means. I know far too many people who are scared to lose their freedom in hopes of getting help. And once “in” the system, there is no guarantee that you can get out!!!

  4. Screening in schools sounds like a good plan but in practice, I don’t think it will work as envisioned. We are a family who was ostracized and terrorized by a school and community because of M.I. so I just don’t think it’s a great answer.

    MN is a great state that screens and finds and knows that there is a problem however, finding and giving appropriate care in a timely manner doesn’t happen. It will only work in states that have actual care for children with M.I…..

    Having one child with pediatric bipolar disorder in that all care providers but one in MN have refused to diagnose. Soo many providers prefer to err on the side of caution and meanwhile….(it’s now been 10 years) finding appropriate and timely care has not been afforded to us.

    Yes we are doing the best we can with what we have, but it’s been a long struggle and battle…

    Good thinking but to actually do and pull off where it helps people, I doubt that will ever happen!

  5. Lucy Studd says

    Screening in the schools is a plan to be considered seriously. However, the biggest problem in our country for the seriously mentally is that once of age no one can help them because of the laws that exisit. THE LAWS NEED TO BE CHANGED. Everything we do is an inefficient bandaid on this sore of humanity. The real problem has to do with respect of the illness and those who suffer with it and accountability on the part of the mental health system.