Colloquium topic – from mental illness to social capital

There is a myriad of ways that a person could “Think about America” when examining this country.  On Wednesday, March 23 the SIUE College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) Colloquium, two professors took very different approaches on the theme “America Divided: Examining the Social and Economic Gaps II.”

Gary Hicks, associate professor and chair of mass communications, and Angela Kaiser, assistant professor of social work, each gave presentations about their respective research.

Hicks, who has been studying the portrayal of mental illness in mass media, presented a condensed version of a small portion of a book that he is under contract to write concerning this topic.  Hicks is interested in not only the images portrayed by the media but on the impact those images have on the mental health community and the general community.

“My interest was really piqued in 2007 when I had an opportunity to spend a week doing some ethnographic work at an organization called Fountain House, which is in New York City,” said Hicks.  “I learned a lot about how the community views how the mass media views them.”

Hicks presentation was entitled “From ‘Snake Pit’ to ‘South Park’: The Changing American face of Mental Illness”.  “The Snake Pit” is a 1948 movie where the main character finds herself in an insane asylum.  The snake pit refers to the idea that the asylum was ‘the cage’ where the people with mental illness should be kept to protect the general public.

“This is what we equate with mental illness, something to be afraid of.  What is the tendency of people when they see something that is in a cage,” asked Hicks.  “There is a reason they are in a cage.  You have to be worried, that whatever is in that cage is going to come out and do some harm.”

Hicks went on to show images presented by the media in the decades that followed this film.  Some of the examples that Hicks used included forms of healing the insane using twirling machines, electroshock treatment,  He followed this with the examples of Hollywoods portrayals: “House of Crazies,” “The Night Runner,” “Psychopath,” “Cybil,” and “Crazy People” and numerous other examples up to more modern depictions such as “As Good as It Gets” and “Temple Grandin.”

Hicks believes that his work is important to the theme of the colloquium because of the power of Hollywood’s images and what those images do to influence societies beliefs about mental illness.

“There is no greater power in today’s society than the mass media, and no greater myth-maker than Hollywood. These cultural forces help to shape our understanding of mental illness, understanding that has changed over time,” said Hicks.  “It’s important for people to come to terms with their own beliefs about mental illness and the mentally ill, and to understand where they got those beliefs.”

The issue of dealing with one’s perception of others carried over to Kaiser’s presentation.  Kaiser, who completed work on her dissertation in 2010, presented the results of her work entitled “Facilitating the Development of Bridging Social Capital in America.”

“A lot of things stood out to me [when beginning the dissertation research], particularly looking at the participation in democracy in our country,” said Kaiser.  “The other theme that stood out to me was the lack of different types of people coming together to work together. …people who are different from one another working together on social issues and political issues.”

Kaiser’s work involves looking at the way people of various ethnic groups come together, or fail to come together, to solve community issues.  Kaiser believes that it is important to look at bridging social capital.

“More specifically, that people from different backgrounds can work together towards the same goals and the likelihood of achieving these goals is higher because they are working together and are not divided,” stated Kaiser.

As Kaiser began her dissertation research, she encountered a lot of literature about faith-based organization are bridging social capital but she saw a lack of literature about what exactly the strategy used was and how the strategy was used.  Kaiser’s work  focuses on the difference between faith based organizations and race based organizations.

“I wanted to see if I could capture a model for this bridging social capital topic,” stated Kaiser.  “For my study, I defined social capital as the features of social life—networks, norms, and trust—that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives.  And, that comes from Robert Putnam.”

Kaiser’s research looked at an organization called MOSES (Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strengths) in Detroit, MI, a non-profit, congregation centered, faith-based organization.

It is important for people to consider this as a way to improve society.  Kaiser stated that there is segregation in the United States, people are more likely to come into contact with people that are similar to them and this impedes the process that would allow them to shrink the gap that prevents bridging social capital.

“Fear has been used throughout our history to frighten people about things that we have little understanding about. As we have seen throughout our history, fear usually has negative consequences in the form of prejudice, discrimination, and general mistreatment of certain groups of people,” stated Kaiser.

Kaiser stated there is a definite link between Hicks’ topic of mental illness and her topic of bridging social capital.

“I think both presentations addressed issues that are important to American culture. Gary’s presentation looked at how media shapes our perceptions of people struggling with mental illness.  My presentation focused on the importance of building relationships with those who differ from us on a dimension of life in order to better solve social issues in America,” said Kaiser.

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