The globalization of American style thought campaigns

I am confused by mental illness stigma campaign messaging.  I “get” human rights abuses, I “get” age and sex discrimination; there are legal recourses for these in many countries. I understand prejudice when we’re talking about discrimination, but anti-stigma campaigns are a different beast. Where are we going with mental illness anti-stigma campaigns, and why?  
These campaigns talk about “changing the conversation” about mental illness, which means, to my mind, at least, that they have an agenda to infiltrate minds. Anti-stigma campaigns aim to mold people’s thoughts to conform to the latest fashions and trends, and they encourage people to want to sign onboard, to be part of the “in” crowd and not a self-stigmatizing small minded misfit, a.k.a. a bigot. You want to be invited to the right parties? Check your ability to question the sense of what is happening at the door.
Anti-stigma campaigns are peculiarly American in origin, but adopted by many English speaking industrialized countries. Canada comes to mind, as there is less resistance there to American messaging  due to its geographic proximity and slavish desire to be invited to the noisy party going on right on its doorstep. Anti-stigma campaigns have heavy political undertones, and, with politics comes money. They should not go unchallenged, but they are extremely hard to find out what the real agenda or organization may be behind them. They appear to me to be essentially marketing gimmicks to rebrand thought in ways that benefit certain interests. Yes, in the case of mental illness anti-stigma campaigns, I’m heading in the direction of pointing a finger at pharma, without being able to get at solid evidence. (Please forgive me for not putting the requisite quotation marks around mental illness, a stigmatizing term if there ever was.)
What message are we supposed to take away from people wearing tee-shirts that say “bipolar” next to tee-shirts that says “sister”?  Or actress Glenn Close saying “schizophrenia, schizophrenia, schizophrenia, schizophrenia. See, it has no meaning?”  What would people in India, Thailand, France or South Africa take from this messaging? They would probably be confused. They may not have labels for their relatives. They’ve got their own understanding of mental illness, and, judging from the World Health Organization’s findings that recovery rates are much higher in the developing world than in Western industrialized countries, these people must be doing something right, stigma and all. 
On World Health Day (Thurs. 10 Oct.), I watched the documentary film Hidden Pictures, directed by, and narrated by, Delaney Ruston, M.D.  
From the official website:“Artistically crafted, with unforgettable characters, Hidden Pictures is unprecedented in it’s (sic) scope. The filmmaker, who grew up under the shadow of her dad’s mental illness, takes us on her journey to uncover personal stories in India, China, Africa, France, and the US. Moments of profound frustration and unparalleled compassion emerge. Ultimately we witness the incredible change that individuals such as actress Glenn Close are bringing about.”
I had trouble with this film on several levels, despite its offering some interesting glimpses into different countries’ mental health systems, and their shortcomings. In Thailand, a person can be locked up indefinitely on someone else’s say so, without legal recourse. That’s a human rights issue. In the East, face saving and respect for one’s elders can override human rights concerns. That’s an ingrained cultural issue. South Africans seek out the advice of traditional healers, with predictably mixed results. That’s cultural, too. In India, there is intense pressure not to divulge an illness because doing so has severe implications for marriage prospects. Culture, again. France has very well developed medical care and social systems, but unemployment is high, and it is especially difficult for anyone, who is out of work for several years to gain a foothold in the job market. That’s cultural, but also economic.
Glenn Close, who founded the Bring Change 2 Mind anti-stigma campaign, is a hint that the viewer of this documentary is about to be subjected to the export of a Westernized biochemical view of depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in countries as diverse as India, Thailand, South Africa, and France. Bring Change 2 Mind’s mission is tailored to a pharma only approach, without having to say so: To end the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness through widely distributed Public Education Materials based on the latest scientific insights and measured for effectiveness. To act as a portal to a broad coalition of organizations that provide service, screening, information, support and treatment of mental illness.
There is more than a whiff of pharma in Hidden Pictures.

Delaney Ruston’s credibility problem in developing countries with their own cultural traditions, and better track record in overcoming mental illness, is that she is an American M.D., schooled in the biochemical model of the “disease,” Her medical training has taught her that people with schizophrenia who now seem “normal” must have been misdiagnosed! (It’s there in the film.) In one scene, Dr. Ruston, as the narrator, refers to “the best medical care” as we simultaneously see boxes of prescription drugs being put on a shelf.
Dr. Ruston has cultivated ties to celebrities like Close and former U.S. Senator Patrick Kennedy, who also appears in the film —red flag warnings that money, power and industry are trying to gain international respectability through the seemingly innocuous footage of a film about compassion and caring. The American style Ruston brings to the film has a Hallmark card feel to it (so do pharma ads), the narrator and her camera focusing on how alike we all are, no matter where we live. Well, yes, in many ways that’s true. I feel good about that, I don’t feel good about how scientifically speculative information about the biochemical nature of the major mental health problems is being spread through a stealth campaign called stigma.
A feel good scene shows middle school children in the International School in Delhi “overcoming stigma” by learning about mental illness and the brain. We see brain charts and a kid who hasn’t a clue that he is learning science that is merely wishful thinking at this stage, spouting the usual stuff about the biochemical nature of mental illness. The teacher takes an active, nurturing role in pushing the non-existent science. These carefully cultivated celebrity connections can open international doors, and not just for filmmakers.  I’ll bet a lot of the parents of the middle school kids work for pharmaceutical companies in Delhi.
The real life stories of people struggling with mental illness were interesting, don’t get me wrong, so from that viewpoint, it is forty minutes well spent. But, I do strongly suspect that there is a hidden agenda behind the hidden pictures. Getting people and organizations to talk about stigma is pharma’s social marketing technique. Superficially, it seems harmless, but it also seems very much about getting drugs to some of the world’s most populated countries.
See also Chaya Grossberg’s excellent article Is a Little Stigma Better Than None?

11 thoughts on “The globalization of American style thought campaigns”

  1. I am in complete agreement with you. About ten years ago, some brilliant friends of mine said that anti-stigma is just a way of making it safe for EVERYONE to have a “mental illness.” All three of us went to be interviewed for a state-sponsored film about stigma. I told the filmmaker (I’d been interviewed in previous films by him) before filming. When I summarized our views for him, he told me that we woulod NOT be included in the finished film. Pharma is definitely behind anti-stigma. Creating stigma as the problem prevents the REAL problem from being identified: PSYCHIATRY & PHARMA.

    1. I agree.

      Why is it not enough to simply be *human* and to experience life as it is presented through all of a person’s thoughst, emotions, relationships?

      We need to move away from this type of medicalization, and begin to see people as equals, each striving to make sense of the crazy world we live in, the best they can….

      If we would only begin to encourage people to move *through* theses (sometimes painful) experiences with *hope* that they can move *through* them, we would see people recover at astronomical rates, finding a place in a world among “equals*.

      My two thoughts,


  2. Thank you both for your comments. Anti-stigma campaigns are stealth campaigns, and it’s really hard to find out who actually benefits from them. Not the mentally ill, but we can certainly suspect pharma, psychiatry, and the clubbiness of celebrity endorsements.

  3. I also agree with you about the anti-stigma campaign, especially BringChange2Mind. I used to get emails from them when it first began, and then over time, each email struck a wrong cord in me. I couldn’t put words to how I felt, but you surely have! Thank you for that. I did respond a few times with my personal thoughts, and asked why they were not spreading the word about recovery, and as you state, that the bio-chemical medical model isn’t proven science, as well as talking about alternatives to modern-day psychiatry. A few times I received an answer, saying that my message was heard, but I don’t get emails anymore. I can’t remember why that happened, honestly. Perhaps I got so frustrated that I unsubscribed. I was and am disappointed that people with such great resources aren’t investigating nor understanding the whole story.

    1. Agreed, Michelle. When these kinds of messages strike the wrong cord with me, it’s often because there is a lot of nebulous “feel goodism” co-existing alongside a depressing message about recovery. Why would pharma actualy want people to recover if it means a loss of revenue? I am embarrassed that my alma mater gave Glenn Close an honorary degree. What this does is spread the message to the many, who may not know much about mental illness, that her view is the correct one. And, of course, the university officials get to have lots of photo ops and a fancy dinner with Glenn Close, which may be more to the point.

  4. I agree. While mental illness may be evident in the brain, I don’t believe it starts there, nor (necessarily) ends with medication. It doesn’t make sense. So, because I question Western medicine as an “end all / catch all” solution, I dread the idea that other countries would reject their own ways of treating it. The western medical communities have here a huge opportunity to expand their OWN minds, and fill in the gaps as far as “modern medicine” is concerned. But not if those in this community who are driven by greed (or big pharma) have their way. After all, let’s be clear- America and the westernized world is responsible for the mental illness stigma to begin with, so why export a western “remedy”, too?

  5. The link to Chaya Grossberg’s “Is a Little Stigma….”, appears to be broken. It returns a ‘400’ error / bad request.

    1. I fixed it, Bill, but have to tell you that just about all of my links are broken. This happened when I switched to WordPress from Blogger. It’ll take me years to fix them all.

  6. Glenn is dead wrong. “Schizophrenia” is loaded with meaning. It can make people treat you like a composite of a devious criminal, a preschooler and a leper. Using that word, doctors can force dangerous, disabling chemical regimens on you–making you worse off than if they had left you alone. It can ruin your hopes of higher education, career, home ownership or having a family.

    No one diagnosed with “schizophrenia” would have said anything that idiotic.

    Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can crush my spirit.

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