Why Everyone Is So Upset About This 'Modern Family' Episode


(Photo: National Alliance on Mental Illness)

Modern Family is known for “going there”: gay marriage, relationship age gaps, dysfunctional families, little is off-limits on this sitcom, and the characters manage to find the laughs in all of it. Which is why it was a little jarring when the Emmy-winning show aired a Halloween episode, “AwesomeLand,” in 2014 that featured an “insane asylum” chock full of the stereotypical characters — deranged patients, sadistic nurses, references to the “cuckoo farm,” and more.

Hilarious, right? Not for those who’ve been hospitalized for mental illness, or struggle with any of the mental health issues that one in five Americans face each year. There’s such a strong stigma around mental illness that makes it difficult to reach out for help, so it’s disturbing that a show that takes such pains to crush stereotypes would air such an off-color episode. Even worse, the episode continues to air in the lead-up to this year’s Halloween.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness, along with five other mental health organizations, is calling on ABC to drop the episode from future lineups. A letter published on the NAMI site reads:

Dear Mr. Lee:

The undersigned national organizations join in asking that ABC-TV refrain from re-broadcasting this week the stigmatizing Halloween episode of Modern Family, “AwesomeLand” that aired last year.

Mental illness is not a joke. Re-airing an episode that uses an “insane asylum” theme and stereotypes of people living with mental illness as a vehicle for humor is a cruel Halloween trick on the 1 in 5 Americans who experience mental health problems in any given year.

The U.S. Surgeon General and three presidential administrations have identified the stigma associated with mental illness as a very real public health problem. Stigmatizing, stereotyped portrayals such as those in “AwesomeLand” often discourage people experiencing mental health problems from seeking help when they need it—precisely because they fear becoming subject to ridicule. When it is internalized, stigma also damages a person’s progress toward recovery…

…Please do not undermine your own anti-bullying campaign. Do not contradict your own campaign partner. Children and teens who live with mental health conditions are themselves vulnerable to bullying. That vulnerability is increased when a television network spreads stigma recklessly under the guise of Halloween fun.

ABC’s parent company, Walt Disney Company, recently launched an anti-bullying initiative, Choose Kindness. Here’s hoping they follow through this time.

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