In one of my favorite scenes from The Muppets Take Manhattan, Kermit the Frog has a plan to get his Broadway show, "Manhattan Melodies," produced. He calls this plan a "whispering campaign." He goes to the iconic restaurant Sardi's and acts like he's a big-time producer. Sardi's is famous for having caricatures of celebrities on the wall. In this scene, Kermit goes as far as to take Liza Minnelli's picture off of the wall, replace it with his own, and sit right under it. After this, he has all of his friends, who are rats, go underneath the tables and whisper about how great the show is to get people talking about it. All is going great, and people start raving about "Manhattan Melodies" to each other. That is, until Liza Minnelli herself walks in and notices that her picture is no longer on the wall, AND the rats start sneezing and pop up from under the table, scaring all of the guests. That puts an end to Kermit's campaign.
However, I think that a "whispering campaign" is just what is needed to help end mental illness stigma. I'm not suggesting that you go to Sardi's and blow your paycheck on an expensive meal. Nor am I suggesting that we should only whisper when trying to change people's minds about mental illness. But, I do think that stigma will end when a critical mass of people are talking about the idea that having a mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, and that people with mental illnesses can lead full, productive lives.
So, here's what you can do to help. My last blog on HuffPost was liked by 4,500 people and shared by over 1,000. If each of these people had a conversation with one of their friends tomorrow explaining the truth about mental illness, imagine how many people would be less likely to proliferate stigma. You see, in my mind, a world-wide end to stigma can be accomplished through individual dialogues. It will come from one-on-one conversations with loved ones, helping them to overcome misconceptions about mental illness. It will spread quickly if each person just tells one friend, and asks that person to tell a friend, and so on.
If you want to help, but are not sure how to get such a conversation started, here are some tips:
1. Ask open-ended questions to get the person talking. An open-ended question is one where the person responding is unlikely to use a one word answer. An example might be, "Tell me about your views on mental illness," rather than "Do you think that all people with mental illness are weak?" This is more likely to get the person to open up.
2. Listen before you speak. In order to help someone change his or her perspective on something, it is important to first know what that person's perspective is all about. Also, when you listen first, and show that you are hearing the person without interrupting them, they are more likely to feel respected and understood, and thus share openly about their viewpoints.
3. Know your facts, and use them. Mental illness is very common. In fact, in the U.S., 1 in 4 American adults experience a diagnosable mental health condition in a given year. Telling someone this can help to normalize mental illness, and take the fear out of it for people.
4. Understand people's fears, and validate them before refuting them. Using reflective listening techniques such as repeating what the person says in another way can be useful before you give your side of the argument. This, again, helps people to feel heard so that they can be more open to hearing your differing viewpoint. For example, a person may say, "I'm afraid that most mentally ill people are violent." To which you would say: "I understand that you fear that mentally ill people can hurt others" (this is the reflective listening technique). You might then respond with the fact that "people with mental illness are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of crime."
5. If all else fails, agree to disagree. Mental illness is a "hot-button" issue. Because of this, if you are speaking with someone who is just not seeing your viewpoint, better to disagree gracefully than to get into a heated debate. Remember, the world is full of differing viewpoints, and if you become pegged as being too self-righteous, this can be counter-productive to your de-stigmatization efforts. There are many people who will understand your viewpoint and hopefully change or modify their own. Put your energies into these people.
So that's my plan. Let's use Kermit's idea as motivation for a global change in the way people view those who struggle with mental illness. Kermit has a lot to teach about ending mental illness stigma once and for all.
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