Health & Medicine

June 2, 2013

The Public Eye: State funding of mental health documentary questioned

In "A New State of Mind: Ending the Stigma of Mental Illness," a documentary that premiered on California Public Television stations last week, student Moeshe Johnson describes a common problem for young people.

In "A New State of Mind: Ending the Stigma of Mental Illness," a documentary that premiered on California Public Television stations last week, student Moeshe Johnson describes a common problem for young people.

"It was hard because I had people bullying me and making fun of me," she said.

Bullying may be a widespread problem with serious effects, but critics say the documentary shouldn't be funded by the state's landmark Mental Health Services Act. They say the millionaire tax-funded act pays for programs that fall short of "preventing mental illnesses from becoming severe and disabling," its stated goal.

The documentary was produced by California Public Television and the Sacramento agency Runyon Saltzman & Einhorn as part of an $11 million contract awarded to Runyon Saltzman to reduce stigma. A joint powers authority has awarded $22 million in other contracts for the same purpose.

Supporters of the mental health act say such programs make it more socially acceptable for the mentally ill to receive needed treatment.

But stigma reduction and other prevention efforts have faced scrutiny in the last year because act funding has gone to yoga classes, community gardens and other programs that some consider wasteful. Voters passed Proposition 63 in 2004, which established the Mental Health Services Act and generates about $1 billion a year through a 1 percent tax on millionaires.

In the face of those complaints, lawmakers last year asked the California state auditor to review act spending in Sacramento and three other counties to see if it meets requirements. The auditor expects to release the report next month.

DJ Jaffe, executive director of Mental Illness Policy Org., a national think tank, said Runyon Saltzman's campaign fails to seriously address severe mental illness, as called for in the act.

In addition to the documentary, Runyon Saltzman has produced campaign material for print, radio and the Internet. Jaffe reviewed some of the firm's campaign materials at the request of The Bee.

"The message is wrong, and it's not what the (Mental Health Services Act) is intended to do," said Jaffe.

Jaffe points to one of the agency's concepts that says "Different is the New Normal" and shows a young girl with multicolored hair.

Jaffe says the campaign tries to convince the public that mental illness is normal when the illnesses that are the focus of the act – schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other serious illness – are not normal. They can be extremely debilitating and lead to homelessness and violence if not treated, he said.

In a written response, Scott Rose of Runyon Saltzman said, "The social marketing programs that have been implemented to date have been tremendously successful," pointing to an increase in viewers of a website,, and viewers of the PBS show, which will be broadcast two more times across the state.

Wayne Clark, Monterey County's mental health director, said Runyon Saltzman has done excellent work on the stigma reduction. Clark is board president for the California Mental Health Services Authority, which awarded the contract to Runyon Saltzman two years ago.

He said the agency did extensive research and polling to develop its campaign.

"Mental illness is a large spectrum of problems," Clark said. "One of the reasons people don't seek help is because of the stigma."

But by mischaracterizing mental illness, the campaign insults mentally ill people and their family members, said Rose King, a Prop. 63 co-author who lost her husband and son to suicide.

As an example, King cited the agency's plan to have schools use a story involving a "teenage band," in which each member of the musical group has the name of an illness, such as "Anxiety" or "Bipolar." The band members would teach how mental illness is akin to the feeling people have "while playing or listening to music," according to the agency's campaign.

"It's insulting to suggest that mental illness is a condition of 'sadness, moodiness, and overexcitement,' " King said.

Rose of Runyon Saltzman said that, after presenting the teenage band concept to the California Mental Health Services Authority, the agency decided to scrap the idea.

Runyon Saltzman finished second to a Washington, D.C. agency when an independent panel reviewed proposals for the CalMHSA contract in 2011.

CalMHSA staff recommended Runyon Saltzman for the work, despite the lower score, because it was better positioned to reach certain California audiences, according to a staff report.

The contract runs for four years, ending next year. Under terms of the agreement, the agency can use up to $1.1 million for staff, $890,000 to pay California Public Television to produce the documentary and receive $475,000 in profit.

The rest of the money pays for consultants, media costs and other expenses.

Call The Bee's Brad Branan, (916) 321-1065. Follow him on Twitter @bradb_at_sacbee.

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