August 13, 2014
In the wake of Robin Williams’ tragic death, news coverage of the mental illness component of the story has been responsible and careful to avoid perpetuating stereotypes about people with mental illness. Unfortunately, Shepard Smith of Fox News deviated from this trend by making an insensitive comment that also reinforced the stereotype that people with mental health conditions deserve blame. Smith quickly retracted his comment and offered a public apology after he encountered a well-established method of stigma reduction: a protest strategy.
Smith said, on television:
“And yet, something inside you is so horrible or you're such a coward or whatever the reason that you decide that you have to end it. Robin Williams, at 63, did that today.”
Quickly, backlash against Smith’s remarks mushroomed through social media as many voiced their protest.
Protest strategies to reduce stigma have been studied by researchers and are clearly the third most effective of the three primary methods to reduce stigma. Or, phrased less charitably, they have been labeled as the least effective of the three. But today, something is different than compared to when most of these studies were conducted: we now reside in the social media era.
Let’s get this out of the way first: if the intention is to change attitudes and beliefs about people with mental illness, a protest strategy is never the right approach to take. Protest strategies have no effect on attitudes and levels of stereotype endorsement. However, protest strategies can have an effect on behaviors, especially when the target is a well-known individual, media outlet, corporation, or any entity that resides in the public realm. And, with the social media platforms that exist today, this effect can take place within hours.
A similar instance of a successful and instantaneous protest strategy occurred in September. U.K.-based retailers Asda and Tesco were selling stigmatizing Halloween costumes named “Mental Patient Costume” and “Psycho Ward Costume”, respectively. If you click on those hyperlinks, you will see that the costumes were very stigmatizing in that they perpetuated the stereotype of dangerousness.
The mental health charity, Mind, subsequently encouraged its followers on Twitter to protest the costumes. Within hours of this protest strategy’s inception, both retailers withdrew the costumes and publicly apologized. It is unlikely that any attitudes or beliefs about people with mental illness were altered by this strategy, but it is certain that two items that reinforced the most common stereotype about people with mental illness were removed from store shelves.
Yesterday’s torrent of criticism probably had no impact on Shepard Smith’s attitudes about people with mental illness. The protest strategy directed at Asda and Tesco probably did not win any hearts or minds. But, in both instances, stereotype perpetuation was admonished, arrested, and acknowledged as being unacceptable by the offending party. And, both examples produced results within hours thanks to the speed and reach of social media. While a protest strategy will never be the appropriate means to end prejudice, it can stop stereotypes from being reinforced, and, anyone can do it from a phone, tablet, or laptop. It really is that easy. If you see a public entity or individual fueling stereotypes, you can do something about it.
For more information about stigma, click HERE to go to our stigma page, or email our Stigma Fellow: firstname.lastname@example.org