Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views, Issue no. 7 March-April 2001

The Media & Mental Illness

By Barbara Duncan

In the past year, advocates in the mental health/illness field have made major inroads with the mass media, stirring up interest and controversy on both the international and national levels. Press-savvy advocates managed to: divert the spotlight from Tipper Gore's White House Conference on Mental Health in June 99, cast doubt on the scientific methodology governing the Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health in November, and land first-class coverage of the work of Mental Disability Rights International's exposure of decrepit and inhuman institutions in Mexico and Russia.

In general, results have been comparatively widespread discussion in the press and on television of the situation of this traditionally overlooked disability group; and more in depth presentations about some of the political and professional divides in this field.

International coverage

The January 16 issue of the New York Times Magazine carried a comprehensive report, "The Global Willowbrook," detailing Mental Disability Rights International's factfinding mission to Mexico. The product of a three year investigation, the article uses searing photographs, interviews and case histories to illustrate the irrefutable finding that, "Practically everywhere they (MDRI) go -Uruguay, Argentina, Azerbaijan, Romania, Russia÷they see disabled men, women and children who could live in the community, left to rot in remote asylums that are worse than most prisons."

Funded modestly by George Soros's Open Society Institute, MDRI is staffed mostly by its director, Eric Rosenthal, a young human rights lawyer. He links up with local like-minded crusaders, such as Virginia Gonzalez, Mexico's leading advocate for people labeled mentally ill. The group is working to convince large development aid providers, such as the UN, World Bank, European Union, U.S. government, etc., that how a nation treats its mentally disabled citizens should be a criterion for its standing in the international community. (New York Times article available at www.nytimes.com/library/magazine/home/20000116mag-winerip7.html and information about MDRI available at www.mdri.org)

Unanticipated Effects of Media Coverage

Ten years ago, the international media was saturated with images of Romanian babies and children, many of them disabled, trapped in squalid orphanages. As noted by Holly Burkhalter of Physicians for Human Rights, many countries responded with generous assistance and that aid encouraged impoverished Romanian families to turn additional, mostly disabled children over to the orphanages, resulting in a 37% increase in the orphanage population. (Washington Post, "The Way to Save Russia's Orphans," 4 August 99)

Taking that lesson to heart, MDRI and Physicians for Human Rights are cautioning against international support to improve Russia's vast orphanage system, frequently featured in the media.They quote Prof. Gunnar Dybwad, international expert on mental disability rights: "Four decades of work to improve the living condition of children with disabilities has taught us one major lesson÷there is no such thing as a good institution." Instead, these groups point to Russia's fledgling nonprofit groups working to create community-based services and outreach.

Critical Controversies

Much of the media coverage in the U.S. in 1999 served to expose the wide chasms that divide the mental health arena into roughly three interest groups: self-help groups composed mostly of "consumers" or people with psychiatric disabilities, advocacy groups composed mostly of family members and some mental health professionals, and the drug companies which stand to profit from increased reimbursement for their products by insurance companies and government health programs. (This is, of course, an over-simplification of the turfs.)

One of the main controversies broke on the Internet and then into the press in November when Joseph A. Rogers, consumer advocate and executive director of a National Clearinghouse on Mental Health, leaked the story that the Surgeon General's forthcoming report was adopting a rosy and unscientific view of electroshock therapy. Rogers, one of 150 people who had been asked to comment on the draft, stated that "The idea that the surgeon general is going to unqualifiedly say that ECT is safe and effective really concerns us"you wouldn't even say that"about aspirin." (News from the Clearinghouse is at www.mhselfhelp.org and the new Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health can be found at www.surgeongeneral.org/library/mentalhealth/index.html)

White House Conference

Disability-related White House Conferences are held rarely, so there was quite a groundswell of interest in this one and a cacophony of various voices trying to increase their prominence on the agenda. The consumer representatives reported being drowned out by the majority of speakers who were supporting "forced treatment" and "drug-friendly" programs.

Sally Zinman, prominent self-help advocate from California, addressed the June conference, parts of which were broadcast on television and the internet. She gained substantial coverage of her position, stating that the meeting had turned into a giant "infomercial" for the drug companies. Reacting to pressure from parent groups, some recent incidences of public violence involving mentally ill individuals, and growing homeless populations in the cities, many states have begun to adopt programs that involve forced treatment and monitoring of intake of medications.

National Organizations

On January 20 the National Council on Disability released its report, "From Privileges to Rights: People with Psychiatric Disabilities Speak for Themselves," The report takes a strong stand against involuntary commitment and forced treatment, concluding that "the treatment of individuals with psychiatric disabilities is a national disgrace."NCD makes 10 key recommendations for changes in policy and practice.(The report can be found at website www.ncd.gov)

The newly-formed American Association of People with Disabilities also earned media coverage with its announcement that Andy Imparato, a young advocate with a psychiatric disability, had been hired as its executive director. This may be the first time that an important cross-disability group has selected a mental health consumer as its leader. (Information at www.aapd-dc.org)

A public internet alert system about human rights in psychiatry, sponsored by Support Coalition International, has a public email list, "Dendrite" and a print journal, "Dendron." (See website www.MindFreedom.org)

Finally, a group of advocates who are also media mavens have begun issuing daily summaries of mental health issues coverage around the world. Calling themselves Madnation, the group tracks inflammatory coverage of violence by people labeled mentally ill, takes note of both negative and favorable coverage of their issues and monitors the influence of the "forced treatment" proponents. (Information at www.madnation.org/news)


This new generation of advocates is succeeding at working with the press and on the Internet to bring mental health/illness issues both into the mainstream of the disability movement and to the attention of the public. On the international level, advocates are effectively combining three straightforward messages to attract media coverage: redefining the bottom line as a universal human rights issue, subjecting residential institutions to worldwide exposure, and building support for community-based services.