A Letter to Journalists About Mental Health Stigma
After a tragic event happened in an affluent South Florida town, theories started to buzz about why an average college student would violently attack a couple completely unprovoked. The first theory was designer drugs, which was a growing problem in the area. Then an expert suggested perhaps drugs exacerbated an underlying mental illness, causing him to spiral.
This viewpoint quickly became the favored headline, even though his mother said he had no history of mental illness and there are still no reports of the alleged attacker being diagnosed. Once again, deviant behavior is blamed on mental illness, as if there are zero consequences to that narrative.
This news story drew my attention because I live just a few miles away from the area in which the attack occurred. I also live with bipolar II disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I use my words carefully because as a journalist, I was trained to do so. I was trained to report only facts. That is why I am deeply disappointed by the current trend in media, which only adds to mental illness stigma.
I understand the pressure of a 24-hour news cycle. Early in my career when I worked at a small newspaper, I watched as a colleague was harshly criticized in front of the entire newsroom because she edited a story too slowly and our competition broke the news first. I also realize that there is a fundamental human need to attach a rational reason to an irrational act.
But drawing a conclusion of mental illness as the scapegoat is neither fair nor safe.
My fellow journalists, there are consequences to your actions. You are harming the fight to overcome mental health stigma, and you are discouraging people from seeking treatment. As someone who lives with a mental health condition, I feel like a second-class citizen despite everything I have achieved.
When a journalist on a major television network calls a child molester and rapist “arguably the face of mental illness,” pause to realize how this exaggerated inaccuracy fuels public misconception. Also, how the misrepresentation deters good people in need of help from actually seeking it. Who would want to be associated with such heinous behavior? Using mental illness as a conclusion without facts is dangerous and harmful. It is also dehumanizing.
I am not naïve to the fact that some people with mental illness can react with violence, but as a whole, we do not perpetrate excessive crime and are not more violent. Often, mental illness is only one factor at play. As the media sensationalizes stories with half truths, the public remains ill-informed.
I commented via social media on that South Florida story, trying to counteract the negative implications of the headline; I had people telling me to “check my facts” in response. Their knowledge is clearly built on ignorance, or they would realize there is nothing standard about mental health. We are not all violent. We are not all depressed or manic or even troubled. Even with shared symptoms, every person’s experience is truly individualized.
Journalists, I challenge each of you to be part of the solution, not the problem. Remind yourselves why you were drawn to storytelling, and do it nobly. Be truthtellers—not peddlers of misinformation.
Cheryl Cranick fictionalized her bipolar II misdiagnosis and severe weight gain into a novel titled "Becoming" (http://www.cherylcranick.com). The book hopes to educate about bipolar II and encourage empathy, as her character struggles through college. Cheryl lives with her two rescue dogs in Jupiter, FL.