“The problem with mental health in the media is that everyone is writing the story except us”. I overheard this at October’s “Mental Health and the Media” event hosted by Mental Health Connecticut and Central Connecticut State University Journalism’s Department. Hopefully that will change, since to many, mental health is skewered and sensationalized by the media.
Featuring an outstanding panel that included Moderator John Dankosky, Director of the New England News Collaborative and host of WNPR’s weekly show NEXT, Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty (DCT), veteran media producer Bill Lichtenstein, Executive Director of Connecticut Legal Rights Project (CLRP), Kathy Flaherty, and Boston Globe reporter Jenna Russell to start and lead the discussion.
One of the problems observed is that mental health is portrayed in countless ways, but it’s not always accurate. We kicked off the event watching a video featuring 2016 presidential candidates talking about the mental health piece and gun violence. We then saw mental health in a humorous way in Hollywood films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or TV shows like Scandal. What it boiled down to is that no one experiences a mental health disability the same way, and often in a way to secure ratings, sell papers, or have the most social media impact, we go for the extreme.
While this will be addressed in a later blog, one of our biggest takeaways is how the media talks about mental illness. Congresswoman Esty was politely corrected when said that people suffer a mental illness. It can be true for some at some point in their life, but as Kathy Flaherty stated, many people live with, survive, and thrive, with mental illness. The crowd was charged with the Congresswoman’s charge to fight for better coverage and less discrimination to mental health services, housing, jobs, and more. Other members of the media, including a commendable effort by Jenna Russell, to highlight mental illness in a series with the Boston Globe.
The audience was filled with members of the press, executives from advocacy groups, and people with mental health disabilities themselves. It was an environment of welcoming but also a charge to learn more. The media is at place, as outlined by Bill Lichtenstein, where everyone has to be experts on content they don’t know, very quickly. He raises a good point: very few journalists are doctors, psychiatrists, social workers, or even mental health professionals. Trying to cover what is unknown in a short period of time, especially if it is breaking news, is problematic.
After a great panel that answered our questions, we left the event with a charge to share our own stories and balance the equation. People with mental health disabilities are not something to be feared or feel sorry for. Part of abolishing the stigma is to just be honest and say this is what mental health is like. It can be scary, debilitating, wildly creative, or just plain boring. Sure it can be unpredictable from day to day, but what isn’t?