The Mental Health Assn. in Los Angeles County wanted to shock people with a public education campaign on behalf of the mentally ill.
They succeeded so well that some advocacy groups are protesting that the campaign, titled "Mental Illness: The Way We Treat It Is Insane," is insulting and degrading.
In particular, protesters single out the campaign's "poster person," a disheveled man shown eating out of a soup can, as offensive and misleading. Not only does the picture degrade the mentally ill, says the Newhall-based Well-Being Programs Inc., the man pictured on the brochures and posters distributed nationwide was an alcoholic, not a mental patient.
"When I saw the poster I was offended by it," said Ron Schraiber, a spokesman for the advocacy group, which is made up of people who are now or have been mentally ill. "It perpetuates the helpless, hopeless image."
The controversy over the public education campaign is ironic since it was specifically designed to dispel myths and misconceptions about mental illness. Schraiber said it ended up perpetuating those misconceptions.
He said a resolution objecting to the image was passed at Alternatives '91, a conference in Berkeley last year attended by former mental patients and representatives of self-help organizations from around the nation.
The protest caused the Los Angeles association to print an open letter of apology in the spring issue of the Mental Health Advocate, the association's newsletter.
"We want to apologize publicly to all those people diagnosed with a mental illness for our decision to use this image," said the letter. "Your responses have helped us recognize the most important lesson we could learn: When trying to make things better, most importantly do no harm."
Schraiber, however, says the apology does not go far enough. He has asked the mental health organization to stop distributing the offensive material and to recall what was mailed out earlier to high schools and media outlets around the country.
The association, one of 550 affiliates of the National Mental Health Assn., has rejected that idea.
"Apparently, our response is not enough," said Martha Sherwood, a spokeswoman with the Los Angeles affiliate. "They want us to pull the entire campaign on a nationwide basis, which is impossible to do."
For one thing, she said, the campaign is mostly over. The association has removed the offending poster from the information packets it sends out to those who ask for them, but the packet still features the image of the man on its cover.
The Los Angeles association is funded by a $1.8-million grant from the state Department of Mental Health and smaller grants from the city and county of Los Angeles.
The campaign was originally aimed at high school students, but its focus was expanded to include the media and other groups. It was developed in 1990 by the Los Angeles advertising firm of Foote, Cone & Belding, which did much of the work free. Even so, the campaign's cost eventually reached $200,000, which was partially covered by a corporate grant.
Ann Stone, associate executive director of the association, said the advertising firm used the photo because it was an arresting image that would call attention to the campaign.
Susan Fairbairn, art director for Foote, Cone & Belding, found the image of a young man squatting down in New York's Bowery in an issue of American Photographer magazine. The man was eating out of a soup can, his hair wild, his face dirty, and his eyes wide.
"The picture says, 'Look at me. Any day you can also be in my shoes,' " Abraham Menashe, the photographer, was quoted as saying.
The picture haunted Fairbairn. "Those eyes," she said. "My reaction was really visceral. A lot of times you see pictures of the homeless that sort of push you away. This one drew you in. They look so innocent."
She said the use of the photo was appropriate, even though the man pictured was an alcoholic and not mentally ill.
She said it has been well-documented that the closing of mental health facilities has resulted in more mentally ill people becoming homeless. "You read stories about it all the time," she said.
With the photo as its centerpiece, the campaign included materials that listed the signs of mental illness, fact sheets and descriptions of various mental afflictions. A 30-minute videotape featuring former mental patients performing improvisational skits based on their experiences in mental hospitals is also part of the package.
The campaign won recognition from advertising professionals. The Media Access Office, a private, nonprofit liaison between the media and the disabled, gave the Mental Health Assn. its 1991 Award of Excellence for Public Affairs.
It also was a finalist for an award given by the Publicity Club of Los Angeles.
But, according to Schraiber, the campaign didn't sit well with former patients. Schraiber is himself a former mental patient who once was described by a state hospital psychiatrist as "almost a professional, dedicated psychiatry fighter."