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NAMI Highlights PBS Stations’ Documentary About the Myth of the “Schizophrenogenic Mother”


The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) applauds PBS stations’ airing of When Medicine Got It Wrong, a documentary about the grassroots movement in the 1970s that led to the national alliance that continues to fight for individuals and families affected by serious mental illness.

NAMI Executive Director Mike Fitzpatrick notes the documentary, which airs this week to coincide with Mother’s Day, “shows how ordinary people were able to challenge the medical establishment. In doing so, they helped revolutionize treatment and hopes for recovery.”

Fitzpatrick continues, “Myths and stereotypes have always surrounded mental illness. On Mother’s Day, it’s important to remember that not only have individuals living with mental illness been unfairly and cruelly stigmatized, but also their mothers and other family members.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, many psychiatrists and medical school textbooks perpetuated the myth of the ‘schizophrenogenic mother,’ in which a mother’s personality was viewed as the source of ‘bad parenting’ and the cause of mental illness, specifically schizophrenia. Never mind that one son or daughter in the same family might develop the illness, while brothers and sisters would grow up to be fine.”

The documentary traces NAMI’s dramatic origins as a grassroots movement and its founding as a national organization in 1979.

In a speech before the World Congress on Psychiatry in 1977, Eve Oliphant, one of NAMI’s founders, proclaimed: “We failed to understand why parents of a child with leukemia were treated with sympathy and understanding, while parents of a child with schizophrenia were treated with scorn and condemnation.”

Twenty years later, the landmark U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health declared: “Mental disorders are health conditions characterized by alterations in thinking, mood or behavior (or some combination)…associated with distress and/or impaired functioning.” The brain is now seen as “the central focus” for understanding mental illness,” involving genetics and biology, including neurochemical activity.

According to the U.S. Surgeon General, “mental health” and “mental illness” should be seen as points on a continuum. One in five Americans experiences mental health problems in any given year. One in 17 lives with the most severe, chronic conditions.

When Medicine Got It Wrong also coincides with Mental Health Month during the rest of May. Many stations will air it at other times in the year ahead, including Mental Illness Awareness Week in October. See broadcast schedule, including other dates.

About NAMI:
NAMI is the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s largest grassroots organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness. Founded in 1979, NAMI has affiliates in every state and in more than 1,100 local communities across the country. More information available:


 mental illness
 PBS documentary

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