Here in New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie yesterday visited Trenton’s Catholic Charities to recognize both the successes of its supportive housing program for loved ones with psychiatric disabilities and the challenges of addictions of some within its programs. The event was covered by many New Jersey media outlets, including the state’s very own public television station, NJTV.
To accompany its video footage, NJTV posted a news article of the event to its website. One of the quoted subjects was Mr. Robert Hedden, a personal friend of PsychOdyssey and a mental health advocate and community leader in the Trenton, NJ, area.
While performing a general public service by reporting on an important event at Catholic Charities, NJTV unfortunately did a serious disservice to Mr. Hedden, a disclosed non-addicted mental health services consumer with a serious and persistent psychiatric disability, with a disparaging description of him as “a behavioral health patient”. Such a descriptor created the kind of needless and insensitive stigma that too often confronts our loved ones with psychiatric disabilities.
To address this matter, PsychOdyssey’s Tom Pyle wrote the following message to NJTV:
Attn: Mr. Michael Hill, Correspondent
Thank you for reporting Gov. Christie’s visit to Catholic Charities. Good news about success stories in New Jersey’s public mental healthcare system are most appreciated.
I note, however, your description of my friend and colleague, Mr. Robert Hedden, a Catholic Charities supportive housing client and fellow board member of NAMI Mercer, as a “behavioral health patient”.
While surely not intentionally so on your part, this is a stigmatizing characterization of Mr. Hedden and other New Jerseyans like him. While not widely acknowledged or understood, stigma against fellow citizens with psychiatric disabilities is often one of the most pernicious forms of social bigotry against a class of people (and their families) as exists in our country today.
Robert has done our local community a great service in disclosing his personal psychiatric disability, thus helping us all better understand the challenges all loved ones with psychiatric disabilities face. He also well represents a supportive housing success story of how a fellow citizen with a serious psychiatric disability, with proper supports and community integration, can not only live, but thrive in spite of such a challenge. He is a vigorous and vibrant fellow citizen and local community leader who happens to have a psychiatric disability, not a “behavioral patient”, which conjures a disparaging image of a helpless, pathetic crazy person in a hospital gown or, worse, straitjacket. All of us who work with him are so grateful for his leadership, as we are for his inspiring model of personal recovery.
We New Jerseyans are fortunate to have NJTV as a media leader for our state. Your coverage of such events and the way you describe them are critical not only to learning of the good work being done in our public mental health system, but also in guiding and correctly framing the public’s understanding of them and those like Mr. Hedden who are its success stories. With great appreciation for the good reporting you and the whole NJTV team undertake every day, let me gently but firmly request that you and your team do all you can with your descriptors to portray our loved ones with psychiatric disabilities as the heroes they truly are, and not diminish their dignity with stigmatizing, diminutive, and incorrect appellations such as “patients”.
With best wishes,
Member, NJ Behavioral Health Planning Council
Board Member, NAMI Mercer