Stigma and mental health: reading between the lines

By Hugh Macaulay

It is no secret that the stigma attached to mental illness is the result of two things, ignorance and fear, and that the former feeds the latter.

We acquire the majority of our knowledge about the world through the media. If our understanding of mental illness is so lacking that we remain in a state of ignorance, then it makes sense to look at the way we digest news, and to strive for a higher degree of personal media literacy. In this way, we can avoid falling into the trap of misunderstanding and its unfortunate consequences.

The first step in this process is to understand the nature of the news business, and how the typical journalist’s dedication to objective news gathering must coexist with the needs of media owners.

A reporter’s job is to tell a balanced and fair story. A media owner’s job is to make money. It is easy to see how these can be uneasy bedmates. Journalists are frequently under pressure from above to deliver stories with conflict, tension, and maybe a little gore, because this is what sells.

Of course, we all understand this. Who’s going to read a story headlined “Polite local drivers obey traffic laws”? Not me.

Merely recognizing this makes us better, more informed news consumers. However, we can and must dig a little deeper if we are to be more sophisticated and avoid the consequences of sensationalism.

Consider the following. It is from a national broadcaster’s website about two patients who wandered away from the forensic psychiatric facility on the Lower Mainland.

“The escapes have caused concern in the local community, particularly in the Kwikwetlem First Nation, which is located near the hospital. ‘I’m fearful for the nation. We’ve got kids here. We’ve got elders here. God forbid something bad happens,’ [a representative] said.”

No doubt this account is accurate, in a technical sense, but it is also emotionally loaded. There is a subtle-but-key language choice, the decision to use a highly suggestive quote, and the subsequent assumption that mental health patients are inherently dangerous.

By using the word “escapes,” the reporter conjures an image of prisoners sliding down knotted bed sheets amid sirens and searchlights. These were patients, not inmates, and the facility in question houses a wide spectrum of clients.

The expressed fear for the safety of children and old people is no doubt heartfelt, but it suggests an almost caricatured hysteria.

These two story elements, easily missed in a quick reading, nonetheless leave a distinct emotional impression which, in turn, creates the unwarranted assumption that mental illness and public danger are connected.

A related and all-too-common story element to watch out for goes like this: “Constable Plod said it was unclear whether the suspect had a mental illness.”

Why so automatically link crime with mental illness? Statistics certainly don’t warrant it. In fact, most folks commit crimes because they are poor, hungry, or just had a really bad day. Yet reporters, editors and news consumers allow this casual connection to breeze by without question.

Having said all this, I am all for colourful storytelling; and I love the English language for its delightful ambiguity. But when these staples of the reading experience lead to increasing the stigma attached to mental illness, then news consumers owe it to themselves and their community to become more media savvy.

© Copyright 2016 Coast Reporter

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