Although nearly one in five Americans will personally experience a mental illness in his or her lifetime, myths and misconceptions about mental illnesses persist. This lack of understanding has stigmatized these very real and physical illnesses. The Surgeon General of the United States reported in 1999 that stigma was the single largest barrier to the successful recovery of people with mental illness, making it harder for people to get treatment as well as find housing, jobs and friends.
Three years before the Surgeon General's landmark report, the company that produced West 47th Street, Lichtenstein Creative Media, conducted groundbreaking research into stigma. Hired to develop an anti-stigma campaign for the City of New York, LCM engaged top advertising executives and market researchers (the kind of people who work for Nike and Coca-Cola) to find out what stigma really is, how widespread it is, and how to defeat it. It was the first major research into what people in a single city thought about mental illness and what it would take to change their attitudes.
Researchers began with quantitative studies, calling more than 400 New Yorkers at home to assess their attitudes about people with mental illness, and then followed up with a series of focus groups. The findings were startling. In the phone interviews, more than half of all New Yorkers said they knew someone with mental illness. About those whom they knew, they felt compassionate, supportive and empathetic, and believed that more tax dollars should be spent to help them. But when a focus group of decision-makers including lawyers, insurance executives and teachers was assembled and asked about perceptions of "the mentally ill," the floodgates opened. The group said that they felt they needed to keep their guard up at all times, and that mentally ill people were unkempt, social outcasts and menaces to society. Group members talked about fearing mentally ill people as unpredictable, expressing concerns that one might "go berserk" and shoot or stab someone. In their professional lives, researchers found, these decision-makers "tended to interact with the mentally ill with apprehension and a lack of compassion."
Asked where they got their perceptions of "the mentally ill," all agreed: from TV and movies, off the front page of tabloid newspapers and by seeing people on the street. What became clear was that the images that drive public perception of mental illness are just the tip of the iceberg, and that the vast majority of people with mental illness recovered people who take their medication, go to treatment, go to work every day and raise families just aren't visible. When asked if they want to hire someone with mental illness or rent an apartment to them, many people immediately think of a guy sleeping on the street or a man who pushed a girl onto the train tracks not about the people that they know in their own lives to be responsible and trustworthy.
So what will help change these attitudes? The research indicated that the best weapon against stigma is the simple experience of getting to know someone with a mental illness. These positive personal experiences can help challenge and change negative images fostered by television, movies and the press.
— June Peoples