Hollywood Stigma Buster

May 01, 2002

Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind
The Oscar-winning film A Beautiful Mind landed a place in history by raising disease awareness through its portrayal of mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr.'s struggle with schizophrenia. With a main character clearly outside the stereotypic box to which most Hollywood depictions of psychiatric patients routinely fall-consider Psycho and Me, Myself and Irene-the film brings insight, awareness, and education about mental illness into the realm of popular culture.

Pharma companies shied away from promoting the movie because they were concerned about how the patient community would react to it, according to Bob Carolla, public relations manager for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) in Arlington, Virginia. However, once the alliance stepped forward to support the movie, companies underwrote several public events. Pfizer teamed up with NAMI to sponsor movie screenings for theater critics and healthcare reporters in New York. Eli Lilly worked with the National Mental Health Association and invited California legislators to view the film in Sacramento. Janssen sponsored a fundraising event- at which John Nash was the keynote speaker-for NAMI's Mercer County, New Jersey chapter.

Pharma was able to dovetail its marketing messages with NAMI's in the wide net of consumer media that covered the movie because the lines of communication were already established from previous initiatives. The ability to do that at the last minute, with patient support secured, shows the priceless "ROI" pharma may obtain when keeping third party relationships active.

Melissa Saunders Katz, director, public affairs, global pharmaceutical communications for Janssen, says that combining healthcare and Hollywood generated unusual press coverage of one of its products. She noted that local California television stations mentioned a head-to-head study comparing Risperdal (risperidone) and Haldol (haloperidol) when reporting on Oscar contenders.

But before all that activity, NAMI was working at the grassroots level to ensure thatdialogue about the movie included facts about mental illness. The organization distributed press releases, fact sheets, and disease information to the news media and connected reporters with schizophrenic patients, family members, and physician experts. They distributed model Op-Eds and press releases through their "Friday Fax" newsletter to affiliate offices and urged members to customize the documents and send them to local newspapers. NAMI also encouraged patients to write to director Ron Howard and share their observations of the movie.

Many NAMI members wrote to Universal Studios applauding the movie, despite the creative liberties taken in representing schizophrenia, and were surprised when studio executives contacted them for permission to print their letters in a press packet. In this unlikely alliance, the studio used the patients' support to market the film and form a public relations front.

The patients also delivered pharma's message about the importance of developing new medications. Patient spokespeople in news coverage focused on discussing the pivotal role that new medications have in helping patients live healthy lives. NAMI members were also quick to protest a USA Today editorial by Robert Whitaker, author of Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill, which suggests that antipsychotic medicines actually hinder treatment of schizophrenia.

"The movie had an impact on a broader cultural debate over the role of science and medicine and evidence-based treatment," says Carolla. "The stakes in that debate are enormous, because it's ultimately about investing in recovery and saving people's lives."

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