Thursday, December 13, 2007

Ransom me

NYU's "Ransom Notes" ad campaign has taken a lot of heat in the form of bad press lately.

In case you've been in Tahiti for the last few weeks, these ads are written in the form of mock ransom notes from children with a range of psychiatric disorders, from autism to anorexia. The premise is that these illnesses "kidnap" kids, and that treatment "rescues" them.

And guess what? I think this is BLOODY BRILLIANT. I had panic disorder--undiagnosed and untreated--for my entire childhood, and this is exactly how it felt even to me at the time. I wish someone had noticed my distress and rescued me. And as the parent of a teen with anorexia, I appreciate the sentiment here--that parents need to wake up and do something.

I get the counterarguments, especially as they come from parents in the autism advocacy movement. And I'm just as cynical as the average reader (maybe more so) about the drug company lobbies. There's money to be made in peddling medications, and kids are a big market.

But none of this holds a candle to the absolute life-shattering despair of living with an untreated psychiatric illness. Of feeling like you're going mad and no one is noticing. Of the fallout of years and years of feeling so alone and helpless.

I often wonder how my life might be different had someone helped me with panic disorder when I was a child. I suspect I'd be a very different person today. And while those who know and love me might say, "We wouldn't want that!"--I'd take it in a heartbeat.

Sometimes a strong message is what's needed. I think BBDO, the agency that created this campaign, got it right.


Anonymous said...

As someone who has struggled with mental illness since childhood (manic depression) and the mother of an autistic child, I agree with you: they're bloody brilliant!

I went and read that autismvox page... well, what I could stand of it, anyway. I can't understand why they're getting so upset. Granted, some autistic people have very mild forms which they can work through/with and they DO lead full lives. But then there are people like MY daughter, who really IS held hostage by her disorder, and there really isn't much hope that she'll ever be free.

I think it's about time somebody said something, and if they have to have some "shock value" to get the message across... more power to 'em.

Anonymous said...

You know, I looked at the one for depressions (which I've battled my entire life) and found it absolutely perfect. And then I looked at the others and thought "Now isn't that a little over the top?". So I think maybe a lot of the criticism comes from people who don't have a deep personal understanding of the diseases.. because when you haven't experienced something yourself, it's all too easy to say "Oh it isn't THAT bad."

Rachel said...

The timing of your post is so timely, Harriet. I just returned from meeting with my graduate adviser where we discussed ways my professors can help me, a student with ADD, next quarter and beyond with my studies.

I've had ADD my entire life and it wasn't until adulthood that I was diagnosed with it. When I was growing up, not much was known about the disease, and certainly my parents and teachers never considered I might have it. Even today, girls with ADD often fly under the radar because they don't display the hyperactivity that boys, to some extent, naturally do. ADD also has links to depression and eating disorders, and I often wonder if I would have developed either to the extent I did had I known the nature of ADD.

I always did well in school, but I could have done so much better if I had received ADD coaching and maybe even medication. And it's much easier to learn and adopt constructive behaviors when you're young, as opposed to me having to unlearn 28 years of coping mechanisms and adopting new and better methods of dealing with my disorder.

Thanks again for the link. I know several teachers through my work and I will be sure to pass it along to them.

Rachel said...

Maybe its just me, but I couldn't get autism link to work....

Anonymous said...

"So I think maybe a lot of the criticism comes from people who don't have a deep personal understanding of the diseases.. because when you haven't experienced something yourself, it's all too easy to say "Oh it isn't THAT bad.""
I'm not so sure about that. ADHD runs in my family and the ads for those meds (they're running now in New York magazine, among other places) scared the crap out of me. Because we need something else to panic about?

But that could be just confirmation bias as I think I've noticed every other ad for ADHD meds in every other magazine and every other TV program I've ever watched and have yet to become desensitized to it.

Plus, I'm always looking for the Complementary/Alternative Medicine approach to "internal invisible" conditions. Usually, when those "condition management" modalities work, they're from some other culture that's 5000 or so years older than our FDA peer-approved one.

Plus I've seen the FDA get it wrong more than once --"Here, this medication totally works for this condition." Six months later, "Ooops, this same med produces this side effect that will exacerbate the condition we were trying to cure. Sorry. Here, take this one instead."

I absolutely agree that more diagnoses should be made and taken seriously.

Although bleeding-edge-early-adopter in my other tech habits, I just don't believe that American doctors and scientists always know everything there is to know, that's all. (For example, my dermatologist gave me French products to cure a condition b/c the American variants had preservatives that aggravated it. But she has dual citizenship and is a mad scholar.)

And too frequently they try too hard -- via "shock" advertising, for example -- to convince us that they do.

YMMV. Of course.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Harriet - CONGRATS on your Times credit.

Rock on.

Anonymous said...

You know, I think that the objections aren't necessarily to what the NYU Child Study Center is proposing to do for these children, but how they characterize them. After all, even though there is a need for supports, awareness, services, and for some of these disorders, treatment, that can and should be communicated in a way that respects the people with the disabilities involved. It's worth pointing out that the response criticizing the campaign is actually spearheaded by individuals with disabilities - not parents or professionals, so I don't think it's fair to say that they aren't familiar with the conditions involved.

Anonymous said...

I'm kind of disappointed not to see one for ADD, just ADHD. The person who came to mind when I read your post is a very good friend who's struggled with ADD his entire life, although when he was a kid they just thought he needed to "pay attention" in order to fix everything. As an adult he definitely feels trapped by it. I don't think these are too far over the top. With any strong message there will be people who don't like what they have to say, but really isn't the debate it fosters the most important part? The more people talking about these issues, the more likely someone will actually know enough to reach out to a "hostage."

Harriet said...

When I think back to myself as a terrified, freaked-out child, what comes flooding back was the sense of aloneness I had. I thought there was something really, really wrong with me. I thought I was crazy. I thought I was damaged goods. Most important, I thought that whatever was wrong with me was my fault.

When I finally got some therapy at the age of 21 and realized that I had a *disease* and that it wasn't my fault--I can't tell you what that meant to me. Even so, that sense of being wrong has stayed with me for my whole life.

So that's what I'm thinking about when I write about this. Those children who are trapped by whatever screwy brain chemistry they've got--trapped in their own sense of themselves, in their own distorted world, in every way. I can't stand the thought that it's still happening right now to children. I want to make it stop.

I wish I'd thought of the ransom notes campaign. That's how bloody brilliant I think it is.

And yes, American medicine is often wrong. I'm big on alternative medicine myself. I have no particular love for the FDA and its methodology. But I also have no respect for the various treatment modalities that put the onus of recovery back on the person with the condition, whether it's anorexia, schizophrenia, or ADD.

[rant over]

littlem, thanks for the kind words! And thanks to all of you for airing your thoughtful views.

Harriet said...

telle, I forgot to say, I think you're right on. It's very hard, understandably hard, to know what it's like to have a particular condition until you have personal knowledge of it.

Anonymous said...

I think you have missed the point of why people find these ads offensive. It's not about treatment modalities; it's about, as you say, "the power of words to change the world".

As far as autism is concerned, the 'stolen child' is one of the oldest and most harmful myths around. While this campaign may succeed in bringing attention to kids' mental health, doing so in language that perpetuates dehumanizing stereotypes ultimately feels like one step forward and many more back.

If you have a little time to spare,

explains it in more detail.

Carrie Arnold said...

I can't speak for autism, but I can speak for depression, OCD, and eating disorders.

So I will.

It IS like being held hostage. Your brain is not being controlled by you, and the awareness of that is totally frightening. And these ads capture that, and they don't blame the sufferer, parents, or society.

Fiona Marcella said...

I haven't been in Tahiti (more's the pity, it would have been a lot warmer than here) but I haven't come across these ads before. I'm not sure how they would go down in the UK. "Typical Americans trying to medicalise life and sell medications", "Parents making excuse for their children's bad behaviour" "one more thing for us to get in a moral panic about"?

As I said, I'm NOT qualified to review them because I've onlly seen them here, but I do think they very accurately describe how my own daughter has said she feels with an eating disorder and with pre-existing problems which were very much noted by her teachers but were never labelled or treated.

Now to find a psychiatrist or really ANYONE in the medical or social work professions here who will take her words seriously and not just think "that bloody mother's been reading stuff on the Internet again"