Letter from NAMI Executive Director Laurie Flynn to Vice-President for Broadcast Standards & Practices, ABC

Mar 27 2000

Christine Hikawa 
Vice-President for Broadcast Standards & Practices
ABC Television Network
77 West 66th Street
New York, N.Y. 10023-6201

Fax: 212-456-6636

Dear Ms. Hikawa:

Enclosed please find a copy of my letter to Peter Berg, producer of Wonderland, which is scheduled to premiere on ABC on March 30th. I wrote the letter after NAMI staff and two outside focus groups viewed two prospective episodes of the series.

Beyond the comments expressed in my letter to Mr. Berg, I am greatly concerned about the reckless indifference that ABC will demonstrate by airing the series. The program poses a potentially dangerous threat to the health and welfare of Americans with mental illnesses. The network and its affiliates risk condemnation and perhaps even legal liability if the series runs in its current form.

Because of the potential impact on people suffering from serious depression or other mental illnesses, NAMI is warning its 210,000 members nationwide about the risks of watching the show-and the need to provide extra support to anyone who does.

ABC and its affiliates have a responsibility to provide similar warnings: including a special alert to suicide hotlines across the country; an appropriate disclaimer before each episode; as well as public service announcements and other programming to offset the show's negative messages.

In one episode, for example, a man with schizophrenia who killed several people in Times Square commits suicide-after being medicated and regaining clarity of mind.

More than the violence that precedes it, the intensity of the suicide scene is cause for major concern: it is unsettling and suggestive for anyone who has-or is-struggling with mental illness. Individual suicides sometimes generate "suicide epidemics" in communities, based on the degree of publicity and graphic description. As a result, most news media follow careful standards in reporting them. In the name of entertainment, however, ABC intends to televise a suicide as a dramatic centerpiece, complete with the character reading aloud a suicide note that communicates a message of despair that flows directly from his improved mental condition.

Also enclosed is a summary of findings of two focus groups recently conducted for NAMI on the two episodes. Disturbingly,Wonderland is about lack of hope or recovery, which belies the science-based, evidence-based reality of mental illness today. The treatment success rate for schizophrenia is 60 percent; 65 percent for major depression; and 80 percent for bipolar disorder (manic depression). In contrast, the show's images and tone are guaranteed to discourage viewers from seeking treatment if they need it, and to generate turmoil or despair in anyone who is in treatment-with attendant risks of relapse or worse. At a time when the U.S. Surgeon General has released the nation's first Report on Mental Health, as well as a Call for the Prevention of Suicide, it is difficult to understand how ABC can be so ignorant, insensitive and discordant in its programming.

I would like an opportunity to meet with you and other network representatives to discuss these concerns in greater detail, as soon as possible.

Sincerely,

Laurie Flynn
Executive Director