As we enter a new decade, it’s important to remember that early NAMI pioneers were up against a society that didn’t understand, let alone talk about, mental illness. People with mental illness and their families were left in the dark, afraid that sharing their experiences could negatively impact their careers, relationships and lives.

In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, NAMI advocates had little to work with when it came to spreading awareness. There was no email, no Internet, no social media. But what they did have was a grassroots effort intent on challenging the status quo. Armed with fax machines, phone trees and hand-stuffed packets sent through the mail, these champions began setting the stage for the next 40 years of mental health advocacy.

What initially helped them propel NAMI into the public discourse was the media. NAMI advocates went to traditional outlets such as Newsweek, The Washington Post, television news programs, anything that could help get the word out. In 1984, NAMI’s first-ever public service announcements, “Shattered Dreams” and “Scrapbook,” aired across the country.

A handful of trailblazing celebrities also became influential during this time, including Mike Ferrell, actor of “M.A.S.H.” fame, “60 Minutes” news anchor Mike Wallace and actress Patty Duke. They gave the public its first taste of storytelling through the eyes of people with mental illness. As respected veterans in their careers, the trio opened up about their personal experiences with mental illness, bravely accepting the potential ramifications. By sharing their stories, these advocates showed the public that anyone can have mental illness — even the famous faces Americans knew and loved.

Another important turning point occurred when Congress declared the 1990s as the “Decade of the Brain,” a period of national recognition of brain research and public education, and established Mental Illness Awareness Week in October due to NAMI’s tireless advocacy. The initiative bolstered NAMI’s efforts, culminating in our first official public awareness campaign, the Campaign to End Discrimination.

The campaign, established in 1996, was fueled by the public’s newfound understanding of brain science and developments in psychiatric medication. The narrative became about treating mental illnesses as the legitimate medical conditions they are — and that treatment works. With this message, NAMI called on legislators to end discriminatory practices for people with serious mental illness in insurance, housing and employment.

Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, NAMI engaged in public battles with companies, entertainment networks and other entities, calling them out for insensitive portrayals of mental illness. The initiative ultimately became known as Stigma Busters. NAMI used these opportunities to continue shaping the story of people with mental illness — that they shouldn’t be represented by sensationalized characters in horror movies or the target of tactless jokes. NAMI successfully pulled inappropriate ads from the air, sent stigmatizing television shows into hiatus and even secured funding for future anti-stigma efforts.

Decades of fighting to medicalize mental illness and admonishing those who got things wrong were critically important to NAMI’s success. However, as movements are ever-evolving, NAMI switched gears around 2010 to our signature positive storytelling approach. Advocates began to realize that prioritizing personal experiences was an even more effective way to amplify NAMI’s message and resonate with those who needed to hear it.

You Are Not Alone, NAMI’s first paid awareness campaign, used the Internet and social media to ask for stories directly from those who wanted to share them. Through this campaign, NAMI illustrated mental illness in real life — examples of hope and recovery and support — from people who looked like you, your brother, your best friend. No matter who you were, where you lived or how mental illness impacted you, you could share your story and become part of the mental health movement. NAMI has continued this momentum through recent campaigns such as StigmaFree, CureStigma and WhyCare?

The methods and mediums may have changed over the years, but the story of people with mental illness and their families has always been at the heart of NAMI’s work. And after 40 hard-fought years of raising awareness, these stories have finally found their way into the light.

Jessica Walthall is Associate Editor, Marketing Communications at NAMI.

This piece was originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of Advocate. 

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