INITIATING A STORY
Phone calls, letters, and press releases are all good ways to initiate interest in a story.
Keep the story warm by supplying developing information by fax or mail.
Expect to wait; the idea may need to incubate.
Aways return a reporter's phone call promptly, if only to say you can't talk until later. Supply additional names and phone numbers, after getting permission, to increase the reporter's options and add depth to the story.
CHOOSING YOUR MESSAGE POINTS
If you initiated the story, you already have a clear idea of what is most important. When planning how to present these important points, keep in mind that a general audience is apt to be uninformed about mental illnesses. Aim for clarity, repetition, and emotional appeal.
Use facts and figures supplied by the National Institute of Mental Health (click http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/numbers.cfm or www.nimh.nih.gov) or the National Institutes of Health (www.nih.gov), or other non-partison research entities.
If a journalist approaches you for an interview, find out the reason for the story. Then decide upon your message points accordingly.
Broaden the story by suggesting the names of colleagues to the reporter.
PREPARING YOUR MESSAGE POINTS
Decide upon 2 or 3 key points.
Work on boiling down each point to a key sentence.
Practice several different ways to state the points.
Decide what anecdotes, facts, and figures you will use to amplify your points.
Try trimming your points to 15 or 20-second "soundbites."
In most cases, you can ask that a fumbled answer be retaped. Just say, Can we do that again?
Restate your key points as often as you can. Use examples that relate to the audience. Appeal to the senses of the listeners by painting a picture in their minds.
HANDLING MEDIA INTERVIEWS
The tips that follow will give you a sense of what reporters need when they turn to you for an interview. With practice, you can help them deliver your message with clarity.
Prepare for the interview. Make sure the interviewer has background information several hours before, or on the day before the appointment.
Know the purpose of the story for which you are being interviewed.
Know where and when the story will appear.
Correct or amplify any statement you make, during the interview or shortly after.
Abstain from answering questions outside your expertise.
Do not release private information.
Look your best and sound your best.
MAKING MESSAGE POINTS MEMORABLE
REPEAT your message points. Weave them throughout the interview.
RELATE your message points to your audience's experiences by using stories, examples, facts and figures.
EVOKE empathy by using visual images and words that arouse emotion.
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Phone calls, letters, and faxes are the simplest, most direct, and most frequent contacts that advocates are likely to have with the media. These are "smoking gun" encounters -- used to correct inaccuracies, to protest negative stereotyping, and to end exploitative advertising or entertainment.
Evidence in hand, a single letter or phone call to the people responsible explaining the harm done is often all that is needed. The chances are good that a "smoking gun" encounter will open doors to further dialogue. You may be surprised at the number of potential allies who work in the media.
For more information about "smoking gun" letters, E-mail your request to the National Stigma Clearinghouse, click email@example.com. Remember to give us your mailing address.
For a free booklet to assist letter writers, order "Challenging Stereotypes: An Action Guide," from the Center for Mental Health Services. Call toll free 1-800-789-2647, publication #SMA 01-3513.
MUTUAL RESPECT IS FUNDAMENTAL
The mass media wield a powerful influence over public opinion. This is particularly true for mental illnesses, since the public is sadly lacking in knowledge needed to discern fact from fiction.
Like members of the public, media professionals may have limited knowledge of mental illnesses. Stereotypes become self-perpetuating unless they are replaced by clear, credible alternatives. If mental health activists fail to speak out, we resign ourselves to the status quo.
Seek to build good relationships with journalists and other key professionals by being informative and reliable. Let members of the media know you respect their intention to be fair and accurate.
TEN WAYS TO DEPICT MENTAL ILLNESSES
Copyright 2001, Entertainment Industries Council, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Depiction Suggestion #1
Try to provide accurate information about the particular disorder being portrayed.
Some people go untreated and undiagnosed simply because they or their families don't have sufficient information about what's wrong or how to treat it. The media's role in getting the word out about mental illnesses and their treatments is especially helpful because the same stigma that blankets this important problem also impedes people's access to information about it. The media can be a terrific vehicle for dispelling myths while at the same time telling compelling stories.
According to a national survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 1998, health care providers and the media, particularly television, generally top people's list of information sources for health-related information. Dr. Neal Baer, former Executive Producer of ER and now Executive Producer of Law & Order: SVU, conducted a survey along with other researchers (published in Health Affairs, February 2001) to determine the impact of the entertainment media on specific health-related issues. Their findings showed that audience awareness substantially increased, at least in the short-term, about issues presented (though without repetition, the awareness level was not sustained over time).
The "Some Interesting Facts" section on the Entertainment Industries Council website (http://www.eiconline.org/creative/spotlighton/mentill), along with the organization resource list provided, give some useful information that, when integrated into scripts, can not only enhance the authenticity of the story line, but provide viewers with what may be vital information.
Depiction Suggestion #2
Try to avoid connecting mental illnesses with violence by emphasizing the "crazed killer."
There's been an unfortunate and damaging link between mental illnesses and violent behavior both on screen and in the public's mind, when in fact several studies have shown that, as a whole, people with mental disorders are no more dangerous than the general population. In real life, they're far more likely to be victims of crimes than victimizers. Certainly they have their pockets of violent individuals, but then so does the population at large.
A 1998 study by Temple University found that over 60% of the mentally ill characters on the screen were portrayed as violent and dangerous; that's three times the rate of the other characters. A poll last year sponsored by the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign found that "three out of four persons surveyed said that mentally ill people were depicted as violent, scary, dangerous and out of control."
In reality, however, researchers have found that violence is limited to just a small minority of those suffering from mental illnesses - particularly those who have a high intensity of untreated psychotic symptoms and those who are also substance abusers.
Depiction Suggestion #3
Try exploring the difficulties persons with mental disabilities face in terms of prejudice and stereotyping and how both impede the recovery process. Emphasize the importance of social support.
When it comes to mental illnesses, the response of others may be as difficult to cope with as the condition itself. People with psychiatric problems often emerge from treatment, already in a vulnerable mental state, only to be confronted by the prejudice of others. They may internalize these negative reactions and feel shame and embarrassment.
Because of this discrimination - whether subtly or overtly conveyed - they may find getting a job or housing difficult. Their efforts to re-engage socially may also face barriers; others may regard them cautiously or fearfully as threatening or simply different. All of these challenges are hard to transcend, especially amid the pervasive negative stereotyping.
A joint study by Indiana and Columbia Universities in 1996 found that nearly half (48%) of people surveyed said they'd be unwilling to interact with a person with schizophrenia and 37% said they'd avoid someone with major depression. Another poll conducted by Louis Harris and Associates in 1991 found that, while 59% of the respondents would be "very comfortable" when meeting someone in a wheelchair, only 19% would be when meeting someone with a mental illness. The media is in a unique position to positively affect these attitudes.
Depiction Suggestion #4
Consider showing main characters seeking out mental health treatment for problems they are experiencing.
Many people with mental difficulties do not seek out treatment because of the pervasive stigma attached. Having a TV or movie character the public identifies with receive help provides a positive role model that others can emulate.
Moreover, showing a familiar character experiencing difficulty coping impresses upon viewers that the line between so-called normalcy and a mental illness is blurrier than many people think. "Mental health" and "mental illness" are not really a dichotomy, but a continuum and we all fall somewhere in between.
Aside from the inherent dramatic value, portraying a lead character as suffering from psychiatric problems helps place mental well-being on a par with physical well-being in importance (as it should be considering its prevalence).
Depiction Suggestion #5
When incorporating a character with a mental disability, try to give an empathetic portrayal of the difficulties encountered in coping with the problem.
Featuring a character with a particular mental disorder may shine a light - in this case a spotlight - on a problem that's often left in the dark. Just showing a somewhat sympathetic individual experiencing problems can be a catalyst for others with the same disability to talk about it among themselves and, in doing so, feel less isolated and alone.
For example, Sally Field's recent portrayal of a person with bi-polar disorder on ER stimulated a spirited on-line chat room discussion among fellow sufferers. One of them commented:
"Sally is representing us all … whether we give our money away and see things, or get seriously depressed. I can only hope that I and the people around me have enough information and pay enough attention to what's going on and get help so I don't get into trouble. Understanding what's going on can go a long way."
Empathetic portrayals - exploring what it's like to be trapped inside a mental illness - can also foster a better understanding and greater acceptance among the audience at large. Focusing on the person and not just the illness - his or her fears, inner struggles and hardships - may help the public perceive those with mental problems as simply frightened, rather than frightening. The emphasis on the humanistic side of mental disabilities sends a message that sufferers are not so different after all.
Depiction Suggestion #6
Consider showing people with mental disabilities as productive, functioning members of society who are coping with their problem.
Fear of exposure may make those who are successfully coping afraid to acknowledge their psychiatric problems. Thus the public, including people with mental illness themselves, seldom get exposed to positive role models - productive members of society who happen to have a mental disorder.
On the other hand, negative role models - the "mad slasher", the "crazed gunman", etc. - are likely to grab headlines. This overrepresentation of negative imagery gives the public a one-sided, skewed view of mental illness. A mentally ill person's dramatic struggle with his or her disability may make for even an even more interesting story line than a dramatic struggle with the police.
Depiction Suggestion #7
Try to avoid labels and pejorative terms like "PSYCHO", "MENTAL CASE" and "WACKO".
People with mental illnesses have been called the "last minority" because of the prejudice this disability continues to engender. While ethnic and racial slurs are no longer considered publicly acceptable, cracks and derogatory comments about mental illness abound. And though it would be considered offensive to joke about someone's physical disabilities, like paralysis for example, mental illness is still fair game.
Though it's certainly the writers' prerogative - even their obligation - to craft realistic and effective dialogue, it should also be remembered that words can be very hurtful.
Depiction Suggestion #8
If portraying a suicidal individual, consider showing some of the warning signs and the importance of intervention.
Approximately 31,000 Americans kill themselves every year. Many of these suicides could have been prevented with the proper intervention. According to the American Association of Suicidology, three out of four people who kill themselves give definite warnings about their intentions, but others are either unaware or don't know how to respond.
The media is in an enviable position to provide needed information about warning signs and effective intervention while telling engaging stories at the same time.
The Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center lists some of these signs, which could be incorporated into a production when appropriate:
Experiencing suicidal feelings directly or bringing up the topic of suicide.
Giving away prized possessions, settling affairs, and/or making out a will.
Exhibiting signs of depression: loss of pleasure, sad mood, alterations in sleeping or eating patterns, feelings of hopelessness, or excessive guilt.
Changing behavior, poor work or school performance.
Showing risk-taking behaviors.
Using alcohol or drugs to a greater degree.
Developing a specific plan (the #1 predictor of suicide).
The following are suggestions of what others can do if someone seems suicidal (based on information supplied by the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center and the Los Angeles Unified School District Suicide Prevention Unit):
Express concern. Be empathetic and not judgmental.
Ask about risk factors. Don't be afraid to ask about suicidal thoughts directly.
Take suicidal thought and feelings seriously.
Let the person know that suicidal feelings are temporary, that depression can be treated and that problems can be solved.
Assist with finding alternatives to suicide.
Never agree to keep serious suicidal thoughts in confidence.
Be supportive and follow up.
Connect the person with agencies or professionals who can help.
Remove possible means of suicide.
Call 911 if an attempt has begun or is imminent.
Once an attempt has been made, be alert for a possible resurgence of suicidal feelings. Risk is highest in the first six months following the attempt. Continue to ask directly about the presence of suicidal feelings.
If the person is imminently suicidal, do not leave him or her alone.
Depiction Suggestion #9
Consider showing that with proper treatment, medication and social support, many people with mental illnesses can greatly improve or recover.
New developments in therapy and especially medication have made mental illnesses more treatable than ever before. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, treatment is effective 60 to 80% of the time. For example, according to the National Mental Health Association, lithium is effective in controlling mania in 60% of the individuals with bi-polar disorder. In fact, mental illnesses are treated at a much higher rate than many other chronic conditions.
It's important for the public - both those who have a mental disability and those who don't - to realize that with the proper treatment, many people with psychiatric problems can lead active, accomplished lives.
Laudably, a few highly successful individuals within the entertainment industry have stepped forward to acknowledge their psychiatric problems, giving fellow sufferers both hope and confidence. Recently, actress and widely-respected screenwriter Carrie Fisher spoke publicly of her bouts with manic-depression, as has actress Patty Duke for many years. Esteemed television personalities like Mike Wallace and Dick Cavett have shown the public that success can be achieved despite recurrent clinical depression.
Depiction Suggestion #10
Try to emphasize that people who have experienced psychiatric disabilities aren't just the sum total of their illness - They're People First - People with Problems.
People with mental problems have personalities separate and apart from the illness itself, just as do those with physical disabilities. They can be smart, obstinate, sweet, whatever - just like anyone else. But because of pervasive stereotyping, they often get pigeonholed by others so that everything they say and do is seen through the filter of other people's preconceived notions about mental illness. For example, what may be interpreted as garden-variety anger in a so-called normal person may be seen as "out of control behavior" in someone known to have a mental disorder. Their thoughts and feelings may be dismissed as simply a product of their illness.
Reprinted with EIC permission by the National Stigma Clearinghouse.
For more information, contact the Entertainment Industries Council website: http://www.eiconline.org
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