So, in researching mental health stigma specifically in the news media, I’ve had an idea: There is a serious disconnect between reports of mental health generally and reports of individuals who actually live with mental health problems.
Here are some headlines I’ve pulled from the Bristol Post website about individuals with mental health problems, all of which were published in the last 12 months:
The top three stories are examples of the ‘people with mental health problems are scary/dangerous’ stereotype. The bottom story is about Charlotte Bevan, the new mother who jumped to her death with her baby not long after giving birth. This story is an example of the ‘people with mental health problems are tragic’ stereotype. (I’m not saying the story wasn’t actually tragic or didn’t need to be reported on, just that it’s a common theme in news stories).
And this was a reoccurring theme in pretty much all stories concerning individuals who have mental health issues. Any time you see a qualifier like ‘psychiatric patient…’ or ‘Mrs Jones, who lives with mental health problems…’, you can pretty much guarantee the story is either going to be scary, gruesome or tragic.
It’s important to note that these are not the only stories featuring mental health which have been published by the Post. There have been plenty of stories about mental health which are not scary, gruesome or tragic. But I think it’s equally important to note the form which these stories take, because they’re basically either press releases (advertising local services or national awareness campaigns) or local people who are ‘speaking out’ about their experiences with mental health issues in order to raise awareness.
So these kind of ‘speaking out’ stories are quite positive and life-affirming, with lots of useful information in them. I’m not saying they’re bad at all, but they definitely form a third category in which mental health is reported on: the ‘speaking out’ category. Mental health is only reported on positively when there’s a distance between the individual and the illness. These kind of stories are not about an event or an incidence in a person’s life unless that event is simply having a mental health condition at all.
For example, it’s not ‘Psychiatric patient runs art class at local hospital’. ‘Mentally ill man wins Employee of the Month.’ But, given the fact that the vast majority of mentally ill people are not scary or tragic and are basically just doing everything alongside their illnesses, why on earth couldn’t this be the narrative? And is it a problem that it isn’t?
I think it is. I think it’s a total pain that this hasn’t been seen to be a problem, that people are not allowed to be mentally ill AND interesting, positive people. You’re only allowed to be the centre of the story as a person with mental health problems if you’ve done something terrible or you’ve decided to ‘speak out’ in a sanitised, ‘inspirational’ way for the press. If we keep making it so that people’s mental health conditions have to be the centre of the story, positive or negative, then how are people ever going to understand anything about them? What’s the point in ‘speaking out’ again and again and again when it doesn’t actually represent what my life is like?
I’m done ‘speaking out’. I’m done ‘raising awareness’. By which I don’t mean that I’m done talking about mental health, just that I’m done with the gap between myself and the story. I’m a person, damnit. I’m Woman With Mental Health Issues Enjoys Cup of Tea. I’m Mentally Ill Girl Holds Down Two Jobs. I’m Psychotherapist Client Occasionally Makes Mistakes and is Basically Human. I’m not an inspiration, nor am I a gruesome piece of clickbait. From now on, I’m not ‘speaking out’ – I’m just speaking.