Fighting the Stigma of Mental Illness


Tom Cruise was lucky it was the “Today” show’s Matt Lauer he tangled with -- and not Stella March -- on the subject of psychiatry. The white-haired Westwood dynamo, who’d have to stand on a copy of the Sunday Times in a pair of high heels to hit 5 feet, would have buried the actor.

“There is no such thing as a chemical imbalance in a body,” Cruise told Lauer in June when his publicity tour for “War of the Worlds” suddenly turned into a promotion of the Church of Scientology’s most undercooked commandments. “Psychiatry is a pseudoscience,” Dr. Cruise added, claiming actress Brooke Shields didn’t need medicine for postpartum depression. All she needed was to pop a few vitamins and do a few push-ups.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 15, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 15, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Points West -- The Points West column by Steve Lopez in the Sept. 28 California section about a woman who combats stereotyping of people with mental illness misspelled the last name of actress Sally Field as Fields.

March, the creator and national coordinator of StigmaBusters for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), went through the roof. Then she ran for the computer. Already, her StigmaBusters hotline was backlogged, with bumper-to-bumper e-mails crashing in from around the country.


“Stella called me to say, ‘You’re not going to believe this,’ ” says Bob Carolla, director of communications at NAMI’s national headquarters outside Washington, D.C.

Within hours, Carolla had sent out a press release in which two national psychiatric associations condemned Cruise’s cackling as ill-informed and dangerous, given that treatment can be a life-or-death consideration.

“Mental illnesses involve biological brain disorders, no matter what Tom Cruise says,” proclaimed a follow-up StigmaBuster Alert in which March urged NAMI members to bombard Paramount Studios chief Brad Grey with complaints about his “War of the Worlds” star.

I share this with you now for two reasons:

First, there’s a link between March’s impassioned battles against stereotypes and last week’s incident in which an LAPD captain accused sheriff’s deputies of dumping a man with bipolar disorder on skid row. If not for the stigma of mental illness and the NIMBYism that comes with it, there’d be a more liberal sprinkling of mental health services around the county, rather than the concentration that turns downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica into dumping grounds.

Second, I’ve been meaning to correct an error, and March’s pioneering work with NAMI, an advocacy and support group for the mentally ill and their families, gives me the perfect opportunity.

I wrote earlier this year that there seems to be a 10K race every weekend in Southern California for good causes like research into breast cancer and other horrible diseases, but you never see a 10K for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder research and awareness.


Several dozen readers have since called my attention to the fact that this coming Saturday morning, the Los Angeles and Orange County NAMI chapters will hold 5K fundraising walkathons at the Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale and at the Huntington Beach Pier. For details on how to take part or sponsor a participant, go to

If you go to Irwindale and happen to see a tiny white-haired woman lapping everyone, that’ll be Stella March.

In 1978, March’s husband, an architect, was dying of cancer. At the same time, her son, in his second year at UCLA, had a psychotic break and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Her husband’s death gave March more time to figure out what to do for her son, and she was shocked by what she found, or more accurately, by what she didn’t find.

“The available treatment at the time was nil,” March told me this week at a Brentwood coffee shop. Services were disjointed, information was scant, research was minimal. Federal funds went unused in California because the state wasn’t taking advantage of the money until March got help from Rep. Henry A. Waxman.

“Stella is the grandmother of the mental health system,” says Carla Jacobs, a NAMI member who has fought a long battle to ease the requirements for involuntary treatment of those with serious mental illnesses -- many of whom end up populating one skid row or another. “She’s been around since Day One -- the little old lady who can grab somebody’s coat lapels and get them to listen.”

March was one of the first members of NAMI in 1979, when it was a small network of frustrated families. Today there are more than 220,000 member families nationwide. Like March herself, the organization has become a force of nature, uniting and educating families and influencing public policy such as Proposition 63, which will pour nearly $1 billion annually into California’s mental health services.

But to March, all these signs of progress are no reason to take up crocheting, not that there’s anything wrong with crocheting. Stigma still keeps families from confronting a problem or seeking treatment, and the same stigma marginalizes the mentally ill, making it socially acceptable to have them sleep on filthy and dangerous streets, something that would be unconscionable for victims of any other debilitating disease.

“I wear many hats,” March says, meaning that she’s as likely to testify before the President’s Commission on Mental Health as she is to take a cold call from a family in the throes of a mental health emergency, searching for guidance and reassurance. She also still looks after her son, who is doing quite well, she says, living in a board-and-care home.

And then there’s her stigma-busting operation.

“She works magic,” said Carolla, who has watched her go after perpetrators of countless slants and slurs over the years, such as the New Jersey newspaper that ran the following headline on a story about a fire at a psychiatric hospital:

“Roasted Nuts”

March dispenses gold stars as well as poison darts in her StigmaBuster Alerts. Those who won praise were Sally Fields for her portrayal of a woman with bipolar disorder on “ER” and Ron Howard and Russell Crowe for the movie “A Beautiful Mind.”

But those who underestimate or cross her, Carolla said, do so at their own peril.

“Sometimes I’ll get a contact from her saying, ‘What should we do about this?’ I’ll scratch my head and say, ‘I don’t know, maybe we should try to contact someone at the company.’ And then she’ll call back a few minutes later saying she just got off the phone with the CEO.”

CBS apologized for Dr. Phil’s advice to the father of a boy with possible mental illness -- take him fishing.

Nestle’s dropped a line of taffy bars with goofy cartoon characters named “Loony Jerry” and “Psycho Sam.”

An ad for the 2000 Jim Carrey movie “Me, Myself and Irene,” featuring a schizophrenic character with two heads and a “from gentle to mental” tag line, was dropped when March pointed out that schizophrenia does not mean split personality.

Tom Cruise should be sleeping with one eye open.

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