A Letter to Journalists About Mental Health Stigma

By Cheryl Cranick | Oct. 12, 2016

 

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.

Comments
Deb
Stephen Hess, I would like to see the sweatshirt.
11/27/2016 4:58:38 AM

Marilyn Martin
I get your point, but what about my plight?!!
Ignoring the fact that some with the most serious brain disorders can and do become violent toward others will only exacerbate the problem. More people who are so sick as to have lost insight will harm their caretakers when families cannot get them into treatment due to archaic commitment laws. It's a bit like a do-loop. It cannot and should not be ignored. There are model laws that can replace those archaic laws. My son's schizophrenia is neuro-developmental. Neuroscientists have know this since the 90s. When NAMI fails to differentiate among the so-called "mental illnesses," they are not doing anyone any favors. They fail to gain medical help for those like my son who need it, and the continuing violence will feed the stigma machine.
11/4/2016 9:41:16 AM

Sue
Why can't they seem to understand the fact that the mentally ill are more prone to hurt themselves then the general public. Truthfully it is way to easy for the media to slant the facts against those with mental illness. Too often I am asked if I am scared of my son. NO! I am scared of him hurting himself mostly due to the misconceptions the public has and his delusions about himself.
10/28/2016 2:19:04 PM

Marilyn Martin
I agree that the media often jump to erroneous conclusions. However, I must add that there are many seriously ill (about 4.4%) whose brains decompensate via loss of gray matter when they lose insight (white matter) and their families cannot get them back into treatment due to archaic state commitment laws. They can and do become violent, but usually the violence is directed toward their caregivers. It happens every day all across the country. I am beyond sick and tired of seeing anti-stigma campaigns that waste money that could be spent on treating people like my son.
10/27/2016 4:04:42 PM

Steph
I also would like to make reference to my favorite show Secretary of State. In the show there was concern about a former student of hers who may be stalking the secretary's family. She states to her husband he probably isn't the one as there are so many others who like to see her harm, but her comment was, something to the effect he's a little strange and brilliant. He has bipolar!

Also, call health partners, they support talking about mental illness, maybe they can put some pressure on media of all kinds to stop the labeling! We can't help people if they are afraid of the stigma!' Thankyou for this blog the journalist, keep talking.
10/27/2016 1:10:09 PM

Harry
The media's contribution to stigma is never-ending. Here's a "letter to the editor" I wrote recently.
People with Mental Illness read Newspapers
Immediately upon reading the title “As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness”, by Richard Gallagher on the cover of July 3rd’s Outlook section and seeing its accompanying graphic, I had a strong visceral response of anger, disbelief and revulsion. As a parent and caregiver of an adult with mental illness who lives at home, my next thought was, I have to quickly discard this image before my son sees it. This title and image, one that I would expect to see on the cover of a sensationalist publication, reinforces the fears those with mental illness have of the medical community and society and the stigma they feel as to how society views them. Irrespective of what one thinks of the article’s content, the image of a swathed individual whose face is distorted showing anguish and terror while being restrained as a medical professional takes notes, underneath a title that screams “this person is mentally ill” does as much harm to the cause of trying to change society’s view of people with mental illness and of how people with mental illness view themselves, as anything else I can think of. I am saddened and incredulous that the team of individuals producing this piece and the editor that approved it, in this day and age, are still so blind and insensitive to the plight of the mentally ill.
Parent, Bethesda
10/27/2016 12:47:38 PM

Steph
Please help us provide contacts to tv stations, entertainment and news, major movie companies to express what they are doing to discourage talking about mental illness by labeling people as bipolar or scisophrenics. My husband recently said (he has controlled bipolar) with the rampant labeling of everyone who has done some atrocious crime as bipolar, he would never want to share his diagnosis with anyone for fear they will worry about getting hurt by him. How sad is this. Health partners has a campaign to start talking about mental illness, how do these sensationalized or misquoted words help us talk about this problem and help people open up about their feelings and difficulties?
10/27/2016 12:30:29 PM

Leslie
I would take it one step further and say this type of rhetoric could put those w mental illness at risk for being harmed themselves. Careless speech has consequencess and if the mentally ill are constantly portrayed as violent, what happens to them during a public episode or setback? It makes me fearful for the person I love who is mentally ill.
10/26/2016 8:03:13 PM

Steven Hess
I helped design a Stigma hooded sweatshirt. Is anyone interested in seeing it?
10/26/2016 5:26:45 PM

Laveine Harley
I've been out on the street looking for my sister for years. How can I get help in finding her. she in mental ill and hometo all I'm asking for was help in locate her I would like to know that she okay . Please help me find her.
10/13/2016 2:04:19 PM

Michael D Turner
I agree with your take on the 24 hour news going out to say things that are not even confirmed properly. I think every time there is a shooting the NRA has supporters start spilling the fact that it was a problem with mental illness not the culture or being able to have weapons made for the military being available. I as a Veteran believe strongly in the 2nd Amendment, but there are reasonable restrictions allowed also since some are not allowed by law period. I would rather than a rush to get the scoop or be first with a story one should get their facts correct and verified by two or more reliable sources.
10/12/2016 4:57:05 PM

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