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


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.