The Media and Mental Health

The entertainment industry and popular culture portrays mental illness as people who are incapable of being normal and constantly trying to seek attention. Let me be perfectly clear for those who seem to not understand: MENTAL ILLNESS IS NOT AN ATTENTION GRAB. MENTAL ILLNESS IS NOT A DECISION. MENTAL ILLNESS IS NOT A WEAKNESS. MENTAL ILLNESS IS NOT TO BE TAKEN LIGHTLY.

For those of us suffering, it’s hell. It’s a constant uphill internal battle that destroys every shred of happiness we may have. It tears apart our insides like a paper shredder. We do not choose to be the way we are. It’s not a joke, nor is it something to be laughed at or whispered about. The media deems this type of behaviour towards mental illness as “acceptable.” News flash: IT IS NOT ACCEPTABLE.

I did some research into this particular area since of course I’m a journalist and I like to research everything and double check sources constantly to make sure the information I present is current and accurate. I came across an article written by  Kismet Baun, Senior Communications Advisor at the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario. It was published in February of 2009 and it explains in detail how the media has the power to shape public perception of one topic or issue at hand. It is a large influencing factor in how society reacts to different things.

I’ve cut out a quote from the article to prove my point. The article includes studies and statistics that are helpful to understand the media’s influence on society’s view of mental illness.

“For better or worse, the media shapes our ideas and ways in which we understand those around us. For those suffering from mental illnesses, the implications of the often negative and inaccurate portrayals of mental health issues are significant. Inaccurate information in the media about mental illness, even if the portrayal of an individual is positive, results in misunderstandings that can have considerable and very real consequences. For example, inaccurate depictions of schizophrenia (which is often confused in the media with multiple personality disorder) can lead to false beliefs, confusion, conflict, and a delay in receiving treatment. Unlike physical ailments, many mental illnesses are associated with stigma. Whether it is self-directed or from society, dealing with this “shame” can be debilitating and interfere with daily living. The mentally ill continue to receive negative attention, largely due to fear and prejudice. People who suffer from mental illness are often pushed to the fringes of, or are directly excluded from, society.” (Baun, 2009, p.g. 9)

Another thing, society seems to think that depression or anxiety are the only mental illness. WRONG. There are so many others that people suffer from that can affect a person a great deal. Schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, borderline personality disorder, binge-eating disorder, selective-mutism disorder, dissociative identity disorder, seasonal affective disorder, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, impulse control disorder, psychosis, obsessive compulsive disorder, post traumatic stress disorder and so many others. The list is extensive and frightening. Many people don’t know some of these illnesses exist because they aren’t talked about as often.

Now this is the sad part. People suffer without others knowing that they are suffering from an illness. They keep it under wraps because they’re afraid to share it and risk being called ugly words and be judged. They can’t get help because they’re afraid and this is not okay. This is stigma playing a huge role which interferes with a person’s recovery and makes it much harder for those who are suffering to come forward. Stigma is the reason for all the misconceptions being spread around about mental illness.

What the media has done to mental health and those who suffer from mental illnesses can be viewed as derogatory for some people. It is a misrepresentation of a group of people who are just as important and loved as everyone else. Discrimination against someone who has a mental illness should not be tolerated.

The media has a duty to represent their sources with dignity and respect; as a journalist I know this all too well. Misrepresentation is the greatest mistake and downfall of journalism that has been overlooked many times. Misrepresentation is stigma. So then why does our society say we’re more accepting and open and welcoming to different things? Why does stigma in relation to mental illness still exist? MISREPRESENTATION BY THE MEDIA. It is the poison that could be the trigger that can end someone’s life. A life you are responsible for protecting just as much as they are.

So what’s the point of all this? Let me tell you…

DON’T CREATE STIGMA. BE KIND. LEARN ABOUT MENTAL ILLNESS. RESPECT IT AND THE PERSON SUFFERING. HELP THE PERSON WHEN THEY NEED YOU. REPRESENT YOUR SOURCES PROPERLY. DON’T DISCRIMINATE.

In case you want to take a look at the article, here is the link: http://ontario.cmha.ca/files/2012/07/olm_stigma_matters_200902.pdf

-E

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