Radio show strives to erase stigma attached to disabilities

By Susan Abram, Staff Writer
Reprinted from LA Daily News

The man at the microphone has been there.

He knows what it’s like to be considered as different, how people will think he will be needy.

“I became an actor because half of my friends told me I couldn’t be an actor,” Robert David Hall says into the microphone at the Clear Channel recording studio in Burbank. “They said, `You’re disabled.”‘

Hall, whose legs were amputated after a 1978 car accident, plays coroner Albert Robbins on the CBS television show “CSI.”

But last week, his role was of talk show guest, discussing mental health and physical disability issues on a new weekly radio program run by Los Angeles County and a mental health advocacy group.

From 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. Sundays, listeners tune in to KTLK-AM (1150) to hear hosts Brian Canning and Wendy Almasy interview guests about topics ranging from bipolar disorder to stress-related anxiety.

The goal is to educate listeners and obliterate the stigma surrounding mental illness.

“As a society, we talk about AIDS, cancer, autism – so why can’t we talk about mental illness?” said Kathleen Piche, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.

The radio program debuted March 6, and is slated to run through May 22.

The department has partnered with The Free Your Mind Projects, a group of concerned individuals who are working on several anti-stigma campaigns.

“We’re just scratching the surface, but what we want to do is educate everyone,” said Canning, who along with Almasy works with The Free Your Mind Projects.

“We’re not doctors, we just want people to know the services out there,” he said.

It’s unclear how many listeners the program has attracted, Canning said, but even one can pass on life-changing information to a friend or relative.

Hall and other guests of the show also are featured on a series produced by Piche called “Profiles of Hope.”

The series is made up of 10-minute stories about famous and everyday people who overcome stigma and other obstacles of mental illnesses to lead happy lives.

The profiles include actress Mariette Hartley, and three-time World Boxing Council champion Mia St. John. Local PBS stations will broadcast the series in May.

With more celebrities and athletes such as actress Catherine Zeta Jones and Lakers forward Ron Artest speaking about their own mental-health experiences, many more people will begin to normalize mental illness and seek help, Piche said.

At least 250,000 Los Angeles County residents seek mental health related services from the county each year. But Piche said the wait times are now longer as more residents seek stress-related help, brought on by lost homes and jobs or less pay for more work.

Hall, one of the featured guests on a recently taped radio show, was 30 when he lost both of his legs after a violent traffic accident on the 405 Freeway in Costa Mesa. A tractor-trailer crushed his car, igniting his vehicle’s gas tank. He was burned over 65 percent of his body.

A musician and former radio DJ, Hall said he turned to acting despite what could have been many obstacles. He uses prosthetic limbs but misconceptions about what the disabled can and can’t do persist within the entertainment industry, a notion Hall continues to shatter through his own advocacy.

While his personal story isn’t mental- health related, Hall said there are parallels with his physical disability. Anyone with a disability should seek out services to help themselves.

“You have to be your own physician,” he said. “You have to get help where help is offered.”

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