Glenn Close is a woman who I admire for her dedication to her sister and her resolve to upend stigma. When Jessie Close was 51 years old, Glenn drove her to McLean Hospital in Boston where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Their commercials questioning the labels applied to mentally ill family members and their relatives are known to millions. We have every reason to admire and respect her for her work. But recent research suggests that maybe family members aren’t the best ones to be talking about stigma.
The research has nothing to do with the political issues surrounding mental illness. A pair of researchers looking into the rise of a culture willing to accept same sex marriage outline a successful strategy that we who live with bipolar disorder and other organic brain dysfunctions can employ:
Michael LaCour, a UCLA doctoral candidate in political science, and Donald Green, a Columbia University political science professor, have demonstrated that a single conversation can go a long way toward building lasting support for a controversial social issue. In addition — nearly as surprisingly — the effect tends to spill over to friends and family members.
The key is putting voters in direct contact with individuals who are directly affected by the issue.
What LaCour and Green discovered is that voters aren’t very moved by impassioned but otherwise unconnected individuals. I have supported same sex marriage since the late eighties, but I doubt that I have convinced anyone to change their mind. Why? Because I am not gay. Gays and lesbians have greater success persuading people to change their mind about same sex marriage and keep them changed. In the study:
The gay marriage canvassers asked voters what they enjoyed about being married (if the subjects were married) or the benefits they’d witnessed in the lives of married friends and relatives (if they weren’t). Gay canvassers then revealed their own sexual orientation and explained that they longed for the same benefits the interviewees had described, and straight canvassers discussed how they hoped a close relative who was gay could enjoy the benefits of marriage.
The average length of these conversations was only 22 minutes, but the visits had dramatic effects.
In follow-up surveys three days later, the researchers found that attitudes were unchanged among the voters who discussed recycling and those who weren’t visited by the interviewers. But among those who spoke with canvassers about gay marriage, support had jumped eight percentage points.
“The change was equivalent to transforming a Midwesterner into a New Englander on the issue of gay marriage,” quipped Green, an authority on research methods in the social sciences.
Within three weeks, however, conventional wisdom kicked in: Support for gay marriage among the voters who had been approached by straight canvassers retreated to where it had originally been; any effect of the conversation had been wiped out. Among voters who had been approached by gay canvassers, however, the attitude shift persisted. In fact, support for gay marriage among that group grew even further when the Supreme Court handed down its decision — jumping an additional seven percentage points. The researchers also found that among these voters’ the support remained a year later.
Our family members mean well when they speak up about the prejudice that afflicts their loved ones. It is people like me and you, however, — people who have lived through the pain of prejudice and ostracization — who stand in the best position to change hearts and keep them changed. The best any family member can do is give a secondhand report of their loved one’s experiences. We — the ones who have mental illness — put a human face on the issue. We are the best ones to talk about how it feels to hear people call us dangerous psychotics and losers, to lose jobs because our bosses and coworkers see us as threats. We know what the disease has done to our minds. We can move souls to greater understanding and action by telling people what it is like to live among paranoid normal people. No family member possesses this experience.
The struggle is ours.
There are two obstacles that I can see. One is that family members may not like seeing us speaking for ourselves. They have their own carefully crafted agenda about stigma that sometimes does not serve our interests. They may fear that we will upset all the hard work that they have done changing hearts and minds. In their eyes, we may be unpredictable and untrustworthy, a message which ultimately undermines the cause of stigma prevention by perpetuating it.
Contradictions such as this cannot be allowed to stand if we are to succeed.
The second is our self-stigma, our belief that if we come out we will be shamed for it, that the attacks of a few idiots will wound us beyond recovery. We may doubt our strength to advocate for ourselves. We may fear being stimulated into an episode. These can be realistic concerns, but we can take steps to limit their power over us. The strength we need is in us. No one but us knows what it is like to live with the economic and social losses driven by the disparagement of our sensitive minds. We can start by asking people what it means to live a life free from the fear of being left out and then tell them about our own experiences. Silent we can do nothing for ourselves. The advances made by our unafflicted friends and families will not last. Only the truths that we alone know can bring us the understanding and resolve of those who persist in ignorance because we are strangers to them.