Stigma Alive & Well in NYC
Mentally ill community stigmatized due to vicious brick and block attack
Franklyn Robb
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Mentally ill individuals are identified with violence despite lack of concrete proof.

In November 19, 1999, the headline, "Get the Violent Crazies Off Our Streets," appeared on the New York Daily News' front page in large, white, bold letters, projecting from a black background. It was first published in response to an incident where, sadly, a woman by the name of Nicole Barrett was hit over the head with a brick. The heading was startling. It "raised eyebrows among some media critics…" said Alan Feuer, in his New York Times' article: "Assailant Prompts Front Page Outrage," November 20, 1999.

Initially, the Daily News associated mental illness with Barrett's attacker: "In our newfound complacency, we had forgotten a particular kind of violence to which we are still prey…[the] violence of the mentally ill. The dangerous ones pursued by personal demons are likely to strike out in viciousness or fear," said the writer of the Daily News' November 19, 1999 editorial "Hospitalize the Deranged," a response to the Barrett event.

However, a December 2, 1999, Daily News' editorial "Keep the Thugs & Violent Lowlifes Off Our Streets" provides evidence that Barrett's attacker did not have a history of mental illness: "Whatever [the attacker's] mental condition might be, those loons on the loose who pose threats to the citizenry are still out there…" said Stanley Crouch. "No, I am not calling for some hysterical rounding up of the mentally disturbed, a percentage of whom surely are harmless. What I am saying is that while we are reconsidering bad policies regarding the mad, we should not drop the ball just because he who might have nearly killed Nicole Barrett doesn't fit that bill."

Crouch states that Barrett's aggressor was not mentally ill. Therefore, the mentally disabled community was wrongly portrayed in earlier publications of the Daily News. Even so, the news organization did not publish a headline with large white letters on a black background-like "Get the Violent Crazies Off Our Streets" headline-disassociating the disabled community from the brutal act.

In a case similar to the Barrett incident in 2000, Tiffany Goldberg was hit with a block of concrete: And, like the Barrett episode, the media was packed with negative mentally ill stories. Among the stories were labels depicting the mentally disabled as "jaybirds," "wackos," and "nut cases." Yet, no one knew with certainty which person attacked the victim. Like other media representatives, it did not stop Crouch: "We have seen another woman, Tiffany Goldberg, attacked in the streets by a loon lost in the dark lanes of his mind…" This statement was published in a July 24, 2000, Daily News' editorial. Whether a person with mental illness attacked Goldberg or not, the mentally disabled community was stigmatized by the media. The mentally disabled were identified with violence even though no one from the mentally disabled community was convicted of the crime.

The media, because of the Barrett and Goldberg incidents, humiliated individuals who are mentally challenged. Yet, once in a while, the Daily News and other media organizations have depicted the mentally disabled community in a positive light. But what happens when another person is struck with a brick or a block of concrete-without confirmed knowledge of the victim's attacker-might the media again be stacked with humiliating depictions of the mentally ill?

Fortunately, there are organizations, which include the National Mental Health Association (NMHA) and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) that have set out to stop outrageous depictions of persons with a mental illness. For example, both NMHA and NAMI have a place on their web site where individuals can address stigma issues. On NMHA's web site, www.nmha.org, there is the Stigma Watch program that "tracks news and entertainment coverage of mental health issues for fairness and accuracy." The organization also has a Stigma Watch line (1-800-969-NMHA) for individuals to report stigmatizing information. Subsequently, NMHA contacts the "offending organizations."

The NAMI web site, www.nami.org, has access to the NAMI StigmaBusters. It consists of a group of advocates from all over the world, "who seeks to fight the inaccurate, hurtful representations of mental illness." According to NAMI StigmaBusters, they "speak out and challenge stereotypes in an effort to educate society about the reality of mental illness and the courageous struggles faced by consumers and families every day."

However, despite NAMI, NMHA, and other organizations' effort to address stigma issues pertaining to the mentally challenged, Jim Reiser, the leader of NAMI's New York City affiliate's Media and Advocacy Group said, "I would say that things haven't changed. Abusive language is still out there…on the whole, we have got a long way to go."
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