The Problem with the “Faces of Mental Illness” Campaign

October 4, 2012 Natasha Tracy

On Monday, I wrote about the Faces of Mental Illness campaign run by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health. This campaign is part of the Mental Illness Awareness Week which is this week in Canada (next week in the U.S.).

I like this campaign, and what’s more, given by the number of people who have read and shared the article, you like it too. People like hearing from other real people who have faced real mental illnesses and come out the other side to create whole and satisfying lives for themselves. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. People find it helpful and hopeful and inspiring.

But the campaign leaves out a huge segment of the mentally ill population. Where is the celebration of those who fight every day to beat their mental illness but don’t become published authors or start a non-profit?

See, Not Everyone Writes a Book

See, the trouble with the Faces of Mental Illness campaign is that they choose extraordinary people. And certainly, people with a mental illness can be extraordinary. They can be brilliant, articulate, strong, courageous and achieve amazing things. But then again, they can just be average folks. You know, like most people.

And moreover, success with a mental illness is not the same as success without one. Yes, writing a book is great but it’s much better “just” to be happy. “Just” to calm the voices in your head. “Just” to be able to contribute to your family. “Just” to be able to live independently.

Real Faces of Mental Illness

Because the real faces of mental illness aren’t nearly as glamorous as the shining examples make them look. The real faces of mental illness are full of flawed, struggling people who work extremely hard every day to try to beat back their illness. And many days they lose. And that’s OK. I think not recognizing these people disfranchises them, which is unfortunate, because there are so many people out there facing these challenges.

The real faces of mental illness include people struggling to shower, people who relapse, people who are terrified, people who can’t accept their illness, people who attempt suicide and people who cry at the drop of an eyelash.

These are the real faces and they deserve to be destigmatized too.

Because while it’s nice to have grand success stories enter the public consciousness, it’s also really important to point out that those in the throes of the illness, or those who achieve seemingly smaller goals, are to be celebrated and are completely “normal” too. It’s not good enough just to insist that people treat the shining examples like everyone else; we must insist that all versions of mental illness need to be treated with respect and compassion.

So I challenge the people at the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health to feature a broader spectrum of people with a mental illness. Because life is messy. It isn’t just glossy pictures, big smiles in the sunshine and speaking engagements. It’s also celebrating the win that is being a good father, daughter, friend and partner. It’s about celebrating getting your first apartment or first job. It’s about celebrating acceptance of your illness. It’s only once we recognize that people in these situations are every bit as worthy and as special and as inspirational as the shining examples that we truly desitgmatize mental illness.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2012, October 4). The Problem with the “Faces of Mental Illness” Campaign, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Natasha is also unveiling a new book, Bipolar Rules! Hacks to Live Successfully with Bipolar Disorder, mid-2024.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleX, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

January, 31 2015 at 5:01 pm

In our province we have the Coast Mental Health, Courage To Come Back Awards that presents awards to average every day people in the following categories: Addiction, Medical, Mental Health, Physical Rehabilitation, Social Adversity and Youth who have overcome adversities.
I'm sure these people along the way, all faced struggles similar to the rest of us on this blog, to get to where they did. Maybe we didn't get as far down the road as some of them did but at least we still have the courage to keep trying. We are all unique individuals with different/simular life experiences and I for one find these type of stories inspiring. I encourage you to check it out for yourselves.

December, 6 2012 at 6:18 am

It's really good to read this blog as a follow-up to the other one on 'Faces of Mental Illness'. Over a year ago, several doctors recommended that I read 'An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness' by Kay Redfield Jamison. I did read it, but at the time I was in a deep depression, and I had a very negative reaction to part of the book. The author is a very successful doctor who travels all over the world, publishes in her field, writes books (obviously), and has fulfilling love affairs. Pretty much, she's everything I'm not. Don't get me wrong. Of course, it's wonderful that she learned how to manage her bipolar, but she's such an exceptional example that it drove me crazy to read about her. Granted, I was in a depression, and when I'm depressed, everything seems to suck, but it's still a good example of how we don't always need to hear about that one shining example, that person who's not only stable but famous, for God's sake. Famous!
So, yeah, I agree with what you're saying here, and I've thought about it a lot in the past. I live at home. I haven't worked in two years. I'm also stable for the first time in my adult life. My meds are working, I'm drug-free, I keep a good schedule and help my parents in numerous ways (cooking, lawn work, house up-keep). I'm there for my brothers and their families, including my wonderful nephews and my niece. I'm here for my friends, too, and I visit them fairly often. I write and read and take care of my seven-year-old dog, and I get a lot of daily joy out of simply living and doing things I like. I don't do anything fantastic, but I'm not suicidal or strung out or getting arrested or hospitalized every six months. More than anything else, I'm not in a mental/emotional hell day after day, and it goes without saying that I'm not dead, which is really a big deal after my chaotic life. I feel good, and even though I do want more in life (job and romance especially), I know that for some of my peers (maybe even for me), my current life is actually sort of a dream.
Stability, peace of mind, sobriety, reliability, these are really good things, and they are at the least a type of success. I may be wrong, but something really bothers me. Mental illness is widely accepted to be totally debilitating, and it often is, but then those of us who have serious mental illness are often held to the same standard of success as others. Even living independently/alone is really a cultural thing, and yet we feel that unless we live alone, we aren't being successful.
Anyway, I'm not really in favor of lowering standards, though I know this comes across that way. But I do think, as you say, success is different for different people, and for those of us who have quite literally lost our minds, we should at least consider that our success will likely be very different from the successes of others, at least for a time.

October, 16 2012 at 4:55 pm

loved this one. brilliant. thank you natasha.

October, 7 2012 at 10:03 am

Thanks for the huge smile you both shared and created. In your corner.

Katie Cadigan
October, 6 2012 at 9:34 am

Thanks! My brother and I made an HBO film on the 1st ten yrs of his battle w/ schizophrenia - People Say I'm Crazy - and we had a heck of a time getting funding because he a) wasn't famous and b) hadn't done anything violent (my other pet peeve).
I love each and every story of someone coming out about living with any form of mental illness. But we need ALL the voices -- even the ones who valiantly battle yet aren't having the benefit of treatments working.
And once "ordinary" people, like my brother are "out" -- we also need to be careful not to put them on artificial pedestals, to think that they are somehow extraordinary. Oftentimes at film screenings people tell us how amazing they think our family is - But we're not - we're just as muddled as any other, the only difference is that one of us happens to be a documentarian and knows how to point the camera anywhere.
Idealizing can lead to convincing ourselves that we maybe aren't as great as the one we're admiring, or our family support isn't great, or our treatment providers aren't great -- and then its not too far a step into the rathole of thinking recovery is never going to happen because we aren't special.
I agree - every milestone is vital. For some of us at times, its simply being able to get out of bed, get showered & get dressed - which is actually the highest goal I've been able to set at points in my life when I was in the throes of terrible depression.
Thanks, as always, for being so direct & fearless, without mincing words. My brother and I are grateful that you reliably give voice to so many dimensions of life with these illnesses - dimensions that are often hidden, ignored, "un-PC, and/or denied.

Natasha Tracy
October, 6 2012 at 7:04 am

Hi Kate,
I suspect you will never meet anyone as aware of politically correct terms as I. I write, literally, thousands of words a week on the subject of mental health and the language varies depending on the audience.
However, for myself, perfectly, I do not believe in "PC"ing up language. I'm sorry if people are offended, that's not my intent, but I call a spade a spade. It's just the way I am.
You can read more about it here:…
- Natasha

October, 6 2012 at 2:35 am

Some people accept and own the phrase "mentally ill", others see it as too broad and sweeping, stigmatizing or generic. In NZ we have an organisation called "Like Minds Like Mine". They started off using celebrities to endorse them but now they show regular, every day people. Not sure that some of the campaigns quite hit the mark but I think what they are doing is great. Here is the link if it will let me post it here:

October, 6 2012 at 1:03 am

Kate I agree that words matter but what is wrong with "mentally ill?" I am mentally ill, my husband is physically ill. It's what it is. Better than some awful politically correct phrase. In my opinion.

October, 5 2012 at 1:15 pm

This is great. However continuing to use the phrase "mentally ill" is not. Words matter, please consider it when publishing to an audience. Thanks!

October, 5 2012 at 1:09 pm

Both times I was in the psych ward, I was struck by how ordinary everyone was. I wasn't sitting in group with tons of novelists, actresses, and business executives. We were all just ordinary. I've managed to get two master's degrees and I work as a mental health clinician, but I would never consider myself more "successful" than others with mental illnesses. I'm just luckier. As Natasha said, "success with a mental illness is not the same as success without one. Yes, writing a book is great but it’s much better “just” to be happy. “Just” to calm the voices in your head. “Just” to be able to contribute to your family. “Just” to be able to live independently."

Natasha Tracy
October, 5 2012 at 6:12 am

For those who have mentioned Hollywood stars - I agree completely. I have been planning on piece on them myself. I find them annoying in terms of how we hold them up as shining examples. Many of us could be shining if we had the kind of resources they have. It's terribly unrealistic.
- Natasha

October, 5 2012 at 3:45 am

I can make the comparison of these face to Hollywood stars. They are people we look up to, but in no way are they really representing what a lot of us go through. Not all of us live in a mansion in Los Angeles, just like not all of us live a life where our symptoms are under control. They can be what others with mental illness aspire to be like, but for a lot of us we will never be able to reach that standard.
Everyone with mental illness is a face of mental illness, and not all of us write books or start non-profit organizations. Some of us just wake up in the morning and survive another day, and that's okay too.

October, 5 2012 at 12:21 am

I have shelves full of trophies and medals, and folders full of certificates, that were greatly coveted by my peers.
That was before bipolar.
I have been out of hospital for nearly two years now. That has been my greatest accomplishment ever.
Yay for me :)

Ceinwen Fidler
October, 4 2012 at 9:09 pm

Hear Hear, mental illness is horrible, and at times the intensity is such that all you can do is survive. Some of us are lucky enough to be able to help ourselves (& maybe others) my articulating our experiences, feelings etc. I totally agree on the importance on recognising, acknowledging & celebrating a person's achiements in their fight against mental health problems. Important that they also can recognise their own achievements & celebrate their victories in what can be a constant battle.

Paul Winkler
October, 4 2012 at 6:46 pm

Thanks for your point of view, Natasha. I have worked hard to reach and maintain mood stability for the past decade. All I've accomplished other than that, is being permanently off work, and living on much, much less money than I was used to before I had to quit. I don't really have the time nor energy for much else, as monitoring my mental health is a full-time job. I don't know what MIAW would need me to do to be a "Face", but I obviously don't have what it takes. Am I a failure? I don't think so.

Susan Inman
October, 4 2012 at 4:23 pm

I think this is a spectacular article!
Some of our family members have made major accomplishments just to survive the horrors of severe psychoses. And they, as you eloquently point out, deserve to be noticed in this kind of campaign. Otherwise the message is that maybe they just aren't trying hard enough, which isn't true. And the celebrating of extraordinary accomplishments actually discourages and stigmatizes them even more. Can't it just be okay to be who they are?

October, 4 2012 at 2:24 pm

I was talking to a friend yesterday on something similar to your point and that's celebrity endorsement of mental awareness. We give the spotlight and endless praises to celebrities who come out about having or had a mental illness. Where if I stood on a street corner or talked to a major broadcaster and announced my mental illness the same would probably not happen and people might think I'm "weird." In support of your point I partially agree, It really creates a false reality in comparison to what the majority of us perceiver each day. However its also sort of a mute point because in the end it brings awareness to mental illness and that's what we all want. I think its baby steps, today Mental Illness awareness needs extraordinary people and celebrities with nice media campaigns to help it gain the spotlight it deserves. For example: Its why fitness videos have fit people on them, because we want to see the highest level of success possible to motivate us to achieve our goals.
When I read a story, or see one of these campaigns, or have the opportunity to go and speak in a school to share my story and the message that recovery is possible I feel optimistic. So I disagree that the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness is disenfranchising the common fighter. Its a campaign of faces who are comfortable to share their story in media in the hopes that it will bring hope to the fighters and remove stigma from the doubters.
Tomorrow because of the awareness gained from these campaigns friends and family wont fear and alienate the people around them who survive each day with a mental illness. People at all stages in their recovery will get support from the only people that truly matter and that's loved ones in their life.

Karl Shallowhorn, MS, CASAC
October, 4 2012 at 1:12 pm

Thanks Natasha. I work with the disenfranchised population you speak of. For many, the main goal is simply remaining stable and staying out ot the hospital.
Yes, we need Jane Pauley and Catherine Zeta-Jones to champion the cause of mental health but we cannot forget those who stigma is a never ending struggle that is faced every day.

Ilene Flannery Wells
October, 4 2012 at 10:51 am

Thank you.
My brother was also a real face of mental illness and is rarely reecognized because he represents someone with chronic symptoms, permanent cognitive disabilities, and who needed permanent intense supports to live in the community. His life was made more difficult by the assumption that he could eventually live on his own, when even from the beginning it was obvious his condition was very severe. After 20 years, they still tried to put him in his own apartment, with disastrous results. And it was only because he did not receive the appropriate, permanent, support. He probably could have stayed in his "assisted" living facility had they 1. Provided real assistance 2. Not treated him like a fully functioning, fully recovered adult, when he clearly wasn't. And 3. Had the facility been considered permanent, but it wasn't, it was transitional only.
A similar transition tragedy happened to the son of a friend of mine who was doing well in a group home. The case worker suddenly pushed him into his own apartment, in a scattered site, with only two weeks notice, in the middle of finals - he had recovered so far to the point where he was in school and had a part time job. Within a month of the move to this scattered site housing, where he could not stand in front to smoke, so he isolated himself in his apartment, the police were knocking down the door and he was re-hosptialized. Luckily, he is doing well, thanks in part to his mother and is boss, but in spite of the case worker. We need better transition planning! Luckily Ben is back in school and at work, but living at home. Hopefully he'll get back into a group home, or maybe even an apartment, but he needs more support, and congregate housing would provide this.
There is now a push for scattered housing and this isn't always the best for everyone, but transition planning is key for those who are good candidates.
Thank you for helping to illustrate the other faces of mental illness.

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