National Alliance on Mental Illness
page printed from
(800) 950-NAMI;

NAMI StigmaBusters Alert

January 2003

Contact: Stella March,


  1. TIME Magazine Spoils Special Issue 
  2. Saturday Night Live’s Opening Skit 
  3. CSI: Criminal Stigma 
  4. General Hospital Follow-Up 
  5. NAMI Media Awards: Your Views Wanted 
  6. Out of Our Inbox 


    TIME magazine devoted its January 20, 2003 issue to "How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body," including articles on depression, schizophrenia, brain-imaging, and genetic research. Unfortunately, much of the excellent reporting was ruined by the flippant tone of an article entitled "How We Get Labeled," which served primarily to perpetuate stigma and trivialize the nature of mental illness.

    The article characterized the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders as a catalogue of "all the ways America is nuts" and included sensationalized references to "transvestic fetishism" and a hypothetical diagnosis of HBO’s Tony Soprano’s panic attacks ("By the way, if you truly think you are Tony Soprano, see No. 295, schizophrenia," the article also noted.) Instead of a careful discussion of the limitations of the DSM, the article confused the process by which distinctions may be drawn between disorders and symptoms (e.g., "compulsive shopping" and "sexual addiction") and stated incorrectly that "DSM diagnoses can be used by courts to lock you in a mental hospital." (Legal standards for commitment do not depend on diagnosis, but on whether or not individuals poses a danger to themselves or others. The statement therefore assumes that persons with certain mental illnesses are violent).

    Noting that the "DSM will always include more hypothesis than answers," it concluded: "Which means that all those guys fantasizing about tennis outfits are probably just weird, not certifiable." The article also noted: "A DSM label can become a stigma." However, the article completely ignored the fact that keeping consumers or family members in the dark about the nature of an illness may prevent empowerment—through understanding and management. The real problem lies not with attaching names to mental illnesses, but with attaching stigma to people who are diagnosed with them.

    Please send a letter to the editors of TIME. In your own words, please express disappointment—or protest—the fact that stigma spoiled an otherwise educational issue on the Mind and Body.

    Key points include:

    • The language and tone of "How We Get Labeled" further stigmatized and trivialized mental illnesses. The problem is not with attaching labels to psychiatric disorders, but with attaching stigma to people diagnosed with them.

    • Terms like "nuts," "weird" and "certifiable" are offensive in any discussion of mental illness. The special issue was no place for snide jokes or satire. Such an approach would never be tolerated in an article about race relations or the scientific uncertainties surrounding cancer.

    • Illnesses can be diagnosed by symptoms, but the article blurred the distinction between symptoms and disorders. It also was factually incorrect in stating that a diagnosis can be used to put a person in a mental hospital—and in doing so, generated more stigma.

    Letters of approximately 150 words can be sent to:

    TIME Magazine
    Time & Life Building
    Rockefeller Center
    New York, N.Y. 10020
    Fax: 1-212-522-8949 (Do not send attachments. Put the letter in the text of the message)


    On January 11, 2003, NBC’s Saturday Night Live (SNL) featured cast members Horatio Sanz as North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and Maya Rudolf as a voice-over interpreter in an opening skit that many StigmaBusters considered extremely offensive and insensitive. It portrayed Kim Jong Il describing himself as suffering from acute pediatric schizophrenia, manic depression, delusions, obsessions, compulsions, and high and low moods. He also recited a list of his prescribed psychiatric medications.

    People with mental illnesses do not deserve to be made the butt of derogatory, stereotyped jokes—particularly when a skit is lampooning foreign political leaders or potential enemies of the United States. In such cases, political satire is being used to demonize or dehumanize. Attributing mental illnesses to such figures uses the suffering of millions of Americans for political ends and unfairly perpetuates the stigma that already surrounds their illnesses.

    Please send comments to:

    Mark your message to Executive Producer Lorne Michaels and head writers Tina Fey and Dennis McNichols.

    • Tell them that you intend to report the incident to the New York Human Rights Commission and remind them that, as businesses and employers, such skits or jokes may be used as prima facie evidence in any discrimination case under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) or state anti-discrimination laws.
    • Tell them that NBC and SNL need to take affirmative steps to remedy such prejudice and discrimination by sponsoring public service messages that support the U.S. Surgeon General’s efforts to eliminate stigma.

    Please also contact:

    Randy Falco
    NBC Television Network
    30 Rockefeller Center
    New York, NY 10012

    New York State Division of Human Rights
    20 Exchange Place, 2nd Floor
    New York, N.Y. 10005
    Phone: (212) 480-2522
    Fax: 212-480-0143


    On January 9, 2003, CBS aired an episode of "CSI" (Crime Scene Investigations) with a story line about bipolar disorder. A father sedated his adult daughter with Valium because she would not take her lithium regularly—and then cut her wrist to stage a suicide attempt so that he could have her committed for treatment. Interrupted in the process, he hid in the closet while she bled to death. As if that’s not bad enough, the episode was loaded with:

    • Factual inaccuracies about symptoms and treatment of bipolar disorder
    • Liberal (i.e., excessive) use of the term "wacko"
    • An inaccurate, stigmatizing caricature of the daughter’s boyfriend, who also was supposed to have bipolar disorder. He was described as staying out every night to play slot machines at casinos; believed he was Jesus Christ; and when he discovered his girlfriend’s body, tried unsuccessfully to revive her, but then coldly took her money to return to the casinos.

    At the end, as the father was led away in handcuffs, one of the investigators declared that his grandmother had been right: "Crazy people will make even sane people act crazy."

    • Ask that the episode never be rerun—and that the show eliminate inaccurate, stigmatizing depictions of mental illness.
    • Instead, the show should consider introducing positive characters that reinforce messages of recovery: such as civilian police authority figures or lab personnel who openly and successfully manage a disorder.
    • CBS also needs to take affirmative action to remedy such prejudice and discrimination by airing public service messages that support the U.S. Surgeon General’s call to eliminate stigma.

    Please contact:

    Creator-Producer: Jerry Bruckheimer
    Episode Producers/Writers: Ann Donahue and Anthony Zuicker
    "CSI" Production Office
    2535 Anza Drive, Stage 6
    Santa Clarita, CA 9135
    Phone: 661-294-2070
    Fax: 661-294-2079

    Short comments also can be posted on the CBS/CSI Website comment line: Scroll down to the last line at the bottom of the page and click on Feedback.

    Leslie Moonves
    President & CEO
    CBS Television
    51 West 52nd Street, Floor 35
    New York, N.Y. 10019
    212-975-5964 (fax)


    We received complaints about December 2002 episodes involving the ABC soap opera's character, Luke Spencer, in the psychiatric unit. We contacted the Executive Producer and Head Writer and shared concerns about the lack of realism and aspects that only reinforced stigma. We emphasized that such incidents are inconsistent with outspoken antistigma messages of the show's star, Maurice Benard (Sonny), who in real life has bipolar disorder and has received NAMI's Aldridge Award for consumer, leadership, courage, and service. They will be sharing background information we provided with the rest of the show's writers.


    NAMI’s national convention will be in Minneapolis, June 28-July 2, 2003. Each year NAMI presents outstanding media awards in dramatic entertainment categories for accurate, balanced, sensitive portrayals of mental illness. Past recipients have included movies like A Beautiful Mind, My Sister’s Keeper, and The Caveman’s Valentine and television shows like E.R. and Once and Again. We’re interested now in receiving comments about two potential candidates:

    • Monk. Frankly, no one likes ABC’s promotional advertising Monk as "the Defecctive Detective," but many StigmaBusters have praised the producers (separate from the network), storylines, and actor Tony Shaloub for a sensitive, accurate portrayal of a detective with obsessive-compulsive disorder, who provides a positive role model as the show’s protagonist and hero.
    • The Hours starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, and Ed Harris. If you have not yet seen the movie, be forewarned: it deals with very intense themes and scenes involving depression and suicide—without what is normally considered a happy ending. Reaction by one NAMI consumer (and family) member considered the portrayals accurate and fair—and praiseworthy for showing individuals with mental illnesses as "whole" persons, who struggle with aspirations and choices, as well as their underlying illnesses. One scene at a railway station outside London, between Virginia Woolf (Kidman) and her protective husband, also seemed to capture, in a very balanced way, the painful tension that sometimes exists between consumers and family members. We welcome additional comments.


    Responding to recent questions and comments:

    • NAMI uses "people first" language: a person with a mental illness or a person with schizophrenia. Unfortunately, the news media does not always follow this policy, even when they base a story on a NAMI news release.
    • Unfortunately, we cannot challenge every instance in which "schizophrenic" or similar adjectives are used as nouns. We have to set priorities and pick targets carefully. However, StigmaBusters are always encouraged to raise individual protests, particularly in their home communities. Every letter educates.
    • We try to include regular postal addresses, email addresses, telephone numbers and fax numbers with every action item. However, some are not always available. Face it, some big shots like to hide! In some cases, fax machines or email addresses will be shut down if there is a heavy volume of protests. If so, please wait a day and try again or send a quick note instead by regular mail. Keep in mind that the best impact often comes from a short, handwritten letters sent by regular mail, with a personal story to illustrate why stigma is bad.
    • Please be polite! Sometimes it’s hard, but always assume that StigmaBuster targets never intended to offend (People who are ignorant or prejudiced usually don’t know that they are. Please also do not threaten or use abusive language—no matter how deserved it may seem. Remember: our ultimate goal is to convert adversaries into allies.
    • Please forward copies of any responses you receive from targets, or email us with details about any phone calls. You are our eyes and ears: part of an essential (and formidable) intelligence network.

    We appreciate your patient, persistent, determined support!

    Stella March, Coordinator
    NAMI StigmaBusters

    NAMI StigmaBusters, dedicated advocates across the country and around the world, are fighting pervasive, hurtful prejudice and discrimination that exists toward people with mental illnesses-while commending leaders who communicate accurate messages to the public about mental illness.

    Stigma discourages people from getting help when they need it. It dehumanizes individuals. It contributes to lack of investment in the mental healthcare system, with catastrophic costs and consequences.

    The time to act is now. NAMI StigmaBusters currently number almost 10,000. Numbers do count, so let your voice be heard!  New subscribers to the NAMI StigmaBusters Alerts may sign up here.


    With more than 220,000 members and 1200 state and local affiliates, NAMI is the nation's largest grassroots organization dedicated to improving the lives of people with severe mental illnesses. Funding sources for NAMI programs include hundreds of state and local governments and foundations; ten of thousands of individual donors; and a growing number of corporations. NAMI's greatest asset, however, is its volunteers-who donate an estimated $135 million worth of their time each year to education, support and advocacy. NAMI does not endorse any specific medication or treatment.

    NAMI StigmaBuster Alerts are electronic newsletters provided free of charge as a public service. Contributions to support our work can be made on-line at Give to NAMI! or via regular mail. Please make check payable to NAMI and send to P.O. Box 79972, Baltimore, MD 21279-0972 or donate through the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC #0538).