I think we often forget just how much of our understanding of mental illness comes directly from the media. Think about your thoughts on Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for a minute. How much are your opinions distorted by the horrendous image of R.P. McMurphy getting shocked senseless in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?
Do you think people with a mental illness are violent because they are often portrayed as violent in movies? Or do you think that because you actually have evidence to support it?
Don’t Believe Everything the Media Says About Mental Health
It’s troubling to think just how influenced we are by what we see on the big screen, our laptops and in newspapers and how little we are influenced by actual people who struggle with mental health challenges. Personally, I know many people who have struggled with depression, bipolar disorder or anxiety and they all appear perfectly normal. They have never hurt anyone and likely never would hurt anyone.
But if you asked someone who got their mental health information from popular culture, they may believe that everyone with a mental illness is violent.
Reading the newspaper can bring about a whole new set of complications. As a former journalist, I know that sometimes the deadline is approaching and you still don’t have all the facts that you need for a good story. For example, a journalist may have the information that a suspect has been treated for, let’s say, schizophrenia, in the past. But they may not have information about whether they were suffering symptoms at the time of the offense. But simply saying that they have been treated for a mental illness implies that the mental illness has some effect on the offending behavior.
For example, a journalist may have the information that a suspect has been treated for, let’s say, schizophrenia, in the past. But they may not have information about whether they were suffering symptoms at the time of the offense. But simply saying that they have been treated for a mental illness implies that the mental illness has some effect on the offending behavior.
The Media Should Accurately Report About Mental Health
And that is often not the case. In reality, it is substance abuse, not mental health challenges, that often lead to offending behavior.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association
. . . as a group, people with mental health issues are not more violent than any other group in our society. The majority of crimes are not committed by people with psychiatric illness, and multiple studies have proven that there is very little relationship between most of these diseases and violence.
There are of course some extreme examples of someone suffering from psychosis who becomes violent. These grab headlines the world over and serve to taint the societal view of those with a mental illness. Just as in any group, there are bound to be some who deviate from the norm. But when the media focuses on this tiny percentile instead of the huge percentile that never violently offend, they are doing society a great harm.
Let’s face it. A story about someone shooting up an office building is going to sell more copies than a feature article on someone living with schizophrenia who has just opened their own business.
But, the Sensational Sells
Even so, just because it would sell a lot of copies doesn’t mean that editors should be putting it on the front page. We need more stories in the media of people successfully coping with mental health challenges and less emphasis on the small percentage who are violent.
I work right next door to a homeless shelter where a good portion of the clients suffers from mental health challenges. I walk by there at least four times a day and in two and a half years, I have never been assaulted, or even yelled at. And I have never been fearful of an unprovoked attack.
I would be much more concerned walking by a group of intoxicated people than a group of mentally ill people any day.
And you should be too.