Halloween Stigmatizing Mental Illnesses: An Annual Embarrassment That Should Stop

(FROM MY FILES FRIDAY) With Halloween approaching, I thought it appropriate to revisit a 2015 fight that mental health groups waged about an especially insensitive Modern Family episode. A year earlier, I’d called attention to the episode only to catch ABC airing it again. After publishing this blog, I reached out to former Sen. Gordon Smith who promised to get involved in fighting stigmatizing programs on TV. Will this holiday be different?

ABC Thumbs Its Nose At Mental Health Groups, Airs Modern Family Episode. We Lost, Right? 

First published Oct. 29, 2015

Paul Lee, the head of ABC Entertainment Group, which oversees the television network ABC and its production arm ABC Studios, ignored requests by the nation’s six largest mental health groups to deep six a Halloween episode of Modern Family last night that belittled Americans with mental illnesses.. He thumbed his nose at the tweets, the blogs, and the complaints asking him to not show the episode.

For a fun-filled half hour, viewers got to belly laugh at “nut jobs,” “deranged mental patients,” a “sadistic nurse” and a “demented doctor.” The screenwriters didn’t miss a trick — there were chains on hospital beds, straight jackets and a husband who calmed his “looney bin” wife by giving her a “box of Cap’n Crunch and letting her stare at a fish tank.” 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness, which led the campaign to sideline the program, came under criticism. So did I and others who joined NAMI in protesting. “Who appointed you the morality police?” one emailer asked. “C’mon, lighten up. This is comedy.”  Another wrote, “We shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously.” 

Those comments sounded familiar to me. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, racist jokes, anti-Semitic jokes, and gay bashing jokes were common. So were racial slurs, anti-Semitic slurs, and anti-gay slurs. My father was a minister and he told me that those hateful words and jokes dehumanized, stigmatized and belittled people. As a youngster, I refused to utter them and didn’t laugh when I heard them. When I was old enough to speak out, I did. It wasn’t always easy, but I believed it was the right thing to do.

At the National Conference on Mental Health held at the White House, President Barack Obama said that embarrassment and fear of ridicule prevents Americans from seeking psychiatric help. “We’ve got to get rid of that stigma,” he declared. Standing with him was former Oregon Senator Gordon H. Smith, the CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, whose son, Garrett, ended his own life during a depressive episode. Smith told the president that broadcasters were committed to launching a national campaign to “reduce stigma around mental illness” in movies, on radio broadcasts and especially in television.

I can’t explain why Paul Lee and his bosses, Bob Iger, the chairman and chief executive officer of The Walt Disney Company and Ben Sherwood, co-chairman of Disney Media Networks, and President,Disney-ABC Television Group, don’t see a nexus between the racist, anti-Semitic and gay slurs that are no longer acceptable in our society and calling persons with mental illnesses “nut jobs” and “wackos.”

Perhaps it is because they don’t have an adult son with a mental illness as I do, and he is not a “nut job” or a “wacko.”

I am proud that NAMI took a stand against bigotry and stigma. I am proud that NAMI was joined by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the Bazelon Center on Mental Health Law, the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), Mental Health America (MHA), and the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services (NYAPRS). I am grateful that Janine Francolini at the Flawless Foundation and mental health blogger Liza Long   joined me in calling on Lee, Iger and Sherwood to not air an episode that contributed to stigma.

So did we lose?

If you judge winning and losing on whether that episode ran, then yes, we lost.

But there are moments in life when you are called on to make a choice and it’s those choices that define character. If you judge winning and losing by that standard, we didn’t lose. The re-showing of that episode simply showed us how far we have to go to educate the public and it told us something about the men who saw nothing wrong in re-showing it. 

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.