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Local Emmy Award-winning TPT series aims to de-stigmatize mental illness

Courtesy of TPT
On TPT's Emmy Award-winning documentary "Make It OK: Understanding Mental Illness," a family discusses their struggles with mental illness and stigma.

Later this month, a group of local television producers, health care executives and mental health activists will gather at Target Field in Minneapolis to accept the most prestigious Emmy Award presented in the region.

On Sept. 13, the 2014 Upper Midwest Chapter Board of Governors’ regional Emmy Award will be presented to the creators of “Make It OK: Facing Mental Illness,” a multipart documentary series conceived and produced in partnership with HealthPartners, Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) and the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).   

The series, which first aired in 2013 on TPT’s Minnesota channel, grew out of a larger public health campaign conceived by HealthPartners and NAMI designed to break down social stigma surrounding people who face mental illness.

HealthPartners executives approached TPT about producing the series.

“We’d worked with them in the past on other storytelling programming, and so we knew that’s really one of the things they do best,” said Donna Zimmerman, HealthPartners senior vice president of government and community relations. “They can take material and make it alive and real for all of us.”

Bill Hanley, TPT vice president of public engagement and strategic partnerships, was involved with the project from the beginning. He recalled that HealthPartners explained that the campaign, which also included employee education at the organization’s many health care facilities and grassroots outreach in the community, was aimed at “normalizing the language that we all use around mental illness, making people more comfortable talking about mental illness and the symptoms and trying to break down reluctance around talking about the condition.”

TPT producers proposed a series featuring profiles of 12 Minnesotans with mental illness who describe in ordinary terms what their lives are like. The pre-produced profiles would be introduced with a statewide live broadcast on the network, where local activists and health experts discussed issues surrounding mental illness and advances made in treatment and acceptance of the condition.

The goal of “Make It OK” was straightforward, Zimmerman said: “It really was not all that much more sophisticated than just saying that everyone needs to be exposed to more people who face mental illness. We need to realize that people who live with mental illness are just like anyone else and we need to learn to talk about mental illness just like we would any other illness. The most important goal of the program was changing people’s attitudes.” TPT producers, she said, “took that idea and ran with it.” HealthPartners gave them the green light to move forward with the shows, and they and NAMI helped TPT find individual Minnesotans willing to tell their stories of life with mental illness.

The finished series was launched with the live broadcast, co-hosted by “Almanac” co-host Cathy Wurzer and local musician Jearlyn Steele. The five segments of the program, “Reframing Mental Illness,” “Families and Mental Illness,” “Parents and Mental Illness,” “Facing Mental Illness” and “Stigma and Mental Illness,” were broadcast consecutively on TPT’s Minnesota channel, and repeated several times throughout the year.

Viewer reaction to “Make It OK” was enthusiastic, Hanley said:  “It turned out to be a much more popular program than we had predicted it would be. People are really curious about this topic.”

Programs released on TPT’s Minnesota channel are aired more than once over a season (the September schedule can be seen here). “Over a sustained period of time we were able to put those documentaries out for pretty widespread viewing,” Zimmerman said. “Over 75,000 people saw these shows in the first year.” 

TPT executives nominated “Make It OK: Facing Mental Illness” for a regional Emmy; the Upper Midwest chapter contacted the station earlier this year to let staff members know that the show had been selected for the prestigious Board of Governors’ award. Thirty-four other TPT productions were also nominated for regional Emmys, including “Heroin at Home: The Rise of Opiate Use,” produced in partnership with Minnesota Department of Human Services. The winners will be announced at the ceremony on Sept. 13.

With an eye toward increased viewership, individual “Make It OK” segments were re-packaged for distribution to community groups, schools and any organization interested in learning more about people facing mental illness. Full versions of the programs are available online through TPT and HealthPartners.

Zimmerman is happy to hear that “Make It OK” reached such a large number of viewers in its first year, and she hopes that the show’s influence will continue to grow. The goal of the campaign was to show as many Minnesotans as possible that people with mental illness lead regular lives, just like anyone else. This understanding, she believes, will encourage people to feel comfortable reaching out for help with mental illness and help healthcare professionals, families and community members give people facing mental illness the care and compassion they deserve.

 “Honestly, we will never know the full extent of the influence of this campaign or even who uses the materials,” Zimmerman said. “I was talking to someone the other day who said her church was planning use ‘Make it OK’ for members of the congregation so they could start a conversation about mental illness in their community. That’s so cool. It’s just how we hoped people would use this information.”

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