Actress Mariel Hemingway (left) presents a Voice Award in August 2006 to
Stamp Out Stigma founder Carmen Lee for her efforts to combat the stigma
surrounding mental illness.
Credit: Larry Merkle
For a small cadre of mental health consumers and advocates living in the
San Francisco Bay area, early experiences with mental illness were kept close
to the vest; many of the details were hidden from friends and family.
But today, the situation is different.
These men and women have since opened up about their experiences—to
thousands of people a week, at times—as part of the Stamp Out Stigma
(SOS) program, a consumer-driven advocacy and outreach program to educate the
public about the realities of living with mental illness.
Program director Carmen Lee established SOS in 1990 to combat the negative
myths and stereotypes associated with mental illness. "I wanted to
create a more supportive environment" for people with mental illness,
Lee told Psychiatric News.
She launched the program with a $10,000 grant from the Zellerbach Family
Fund, which she used to give presentations with a couple of other mental
health consumers to psychology classes in local community colleges.
Since that time SOS has reached an estimated 75,000 people in Northern
California. Her goal? "To put a human face on mental illness," Lee
Together, Lee and the SOS panelists have spoken with a diverse group of
audiences, including middle-high, high-school, and college students; medical,
nursing, and dental students; suicide-hotline volunteers; members of civic
clubs; police and fire departments; and the public through television and
radio talk shows.
Panelists discuss their experiences with mental illness, treatment, and
recovery and answer questions about mental health issues.
Lee has lived with major depression for a significant period of her life
and was once hospitalized for a five-year stretch in the late 1950s. Much of
that time, she said, she was catatonic.
When her daughter, Tina, was still small, Lee decided to commit suicide."
I felt like the world was closing in on me," she recalled. One
snowy December day, she swam out to the middle of a lake. "I knew that
if I swam to a certain point, I'd never be able to swim back," she said.
Her mother-in-law called the police, and Lee was rescued by a motorboat. An
eight-month hospitalization followed.
Lee is no stranger to the stigma surrounding mental illness. Family members
noted that she was educated and had been "raised well," and thus
they had a hard time understanding her struggles. "They blamed my
illness on weak will," she noted.
Lee worked at a number of jobs while ill, including selling real estate and
managing a department store, but said she couldn't keep them because of her
However, launching the SOS program with other mental health consumers was
an essential part of her recovery, she noted.
The same is true for SOS panelist Jay McDonald, 51, from San Carlos,
"I think SOS has helped a lot of people understand mental illness
much better, and I know it has helped me," he told Psychiatric
News. McDonald said he spent a lot of time isolating himself when he was
experiencing severe symptoms of depression, anxiety, and social phobia but
that it has been helpful to tell his story to others and help others to
understand that "people with mental illness are not the monsters you see
SOS panelist Greg Wild tells audiences about Y2K, the year that he"
hit bottom" and then turned his life around again.
After experiencing several bouts of serious depression, Wild lost his
business as an accountant and filed for bankruptcy, and the bank fore-closed
on his home. In 2000, when it became clear that he'd have to go to a homeless
shelter, he went to the train station to get there and stood by the tracks,
contemplating suicide. "I came very close to jumping in front of a
train," he said.
But after spending a month in the shelter, he found transitional housing
with a Shelter Plus certificate from the Department of Housing and Urban
Development, found work, and met his current wife through a psychiatric
In that class, Wild also learned about the SOS program and began speaking
about his experiences with depression for the first time. "Speaking with
SOS has been good medicine for me—it's helped me to place what happened
to me into perspective."
The program has also helped panelist Ina Pottorff, 47, who lives in Foster
City, Calif., to understand her experiences with mental illness over the years
by relaying her story to others.
Pottorff described herself as a moody teenager who was misdiagnosed with
depression as an adult.
When she was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated with a
combination of medicines, she began to become more stable.
Throughout her life, Pottorff has been no stranger to stigma. For instance,
during one of her first encounters with psychiatric emergency services at a
county hospital in California, an intake nurse asked her about her educational
level. Pottorff truthfully replied that she had a master's degree in
criminology, and when asked about work, she told the nurse that she'd worked
for the National Park Service and had been stationed at the White House.
The nurse turned around and scribbled on her chart, speaking aloud as she
did, according to Pottorff.
"Thinks she was a tour guide at the White House. Is
delusional," the nurse said, and took steps to have the baffled patient
committed to the hospital involuntarily.
Said Pottorff, "I protested and told the nurse that I was telling the
truth—that I'd show them my plaques and awards at home," but the
nurse wouldn't hear of it.
These days she relays this story to audiences and usually gets a chuckle.
But she also gets much more from her audiences.
"For years I thought I was the only one who was sick, who felt
isolated, who couldn't get along with other people, and who could barely
function," she told Psychiatric News. "Through SOS, I
have learned that I am not alone."
More information about Stamp Out Stigma is posted at<www.stampoutstigma.org>.▪