Psychiatric labeling, prejudice, and the media

The Ottawa Citizen has a story on a study conducted by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. There are good things and bad things to say about this study. A bad thing was the consistent use of the word “stigma”. People who have experienced the mental health system from the inside are not tattooed, or marked, the way Jews were required to wear yellow stars during the German Third Reich. The study bore the headline, ‘Lazy’ media stigmatize mentally ill. The claim that the media has created a slanderous spin is perhaps a better way to put it in this instance.

“Danger, violence and criminality were direct themes in 39 per cent of newspaper articles, and in only 17 cent was recovery (or) rehabilitation a significant theme. Shortage of resources and poor quality of care was discussed in only 28 per cent of newspaper articles, even though these are perennial problems.”

Danger violence criminality themes 39%
Recovery or Rehabilitation theme 17 %
Shortage of resources and inferior quality 28 %

People in the mental health system often end up there because they would get a low score on a charisma or popularity test anyway. Like jews, and other minority groups, they serve as a convenient scapegoat. Seeing as “mental illness” labels come between people, and the opportunities they might have previously seen in the world, I prefer to approach the matter in terms of prejudice and discrimination. Law enforcement officers do racial profiling targeting African Americans, likewise, here you’ve got the news media aiding and abetting in a similar type of profiling directed at people labeled “mentally ill”.

The analysis was based on 8,838 articles published between 2005 and 2010 that mentioned any of the terms “mental health,” “mental illness,” “schizophrenia” and “schizophrenic.”

The “schizophrenia” label is generally at the bottom of the mental health salvageable people list status-wise. Mood swing disorders, personality disorders, every other sort of label is seen as less severe, and more likely to respond to treatment than psychosis. This, in some measure, is due to the drugs used to treat the label. Long term use of neuroleptic drugs, the drugs used on schizophrenia, can exasperate the symptoms of schizophrenia, and are associated with overall cognitive decline.

[Researcher Rob] Whitley said 12 per cent took an optimistic or positive tone about mental health, while 29 per cent were “directly stigmatizing.” Fully 84 per cent did not quote a person with a mental illness, and 74 per cent did not quote an expert.

Optimistic or positive tone 12 %
Prejudicial and denigrating 29 %
Patient/ex-patient voice absent 84 %
Other expert voice absent 74 %

The media is owned by big money and corporate interests. It should not come as all too much of a surprise that the mass media demands a scapegoat. The mental patient has traditionally served as a scapegoat. It was no accident that NAZI Germany prepared for exterminating the Jews with eugenic policies aimed at exterminating the so-called “feeble minded”, and what were then termed “useless eaters”.

Sensationalism, a common phenomenon in media coverage, was contrasted with “advocacy journalism” that sought to bring the matter of “mental illness” labels to the attention of the general public.

The article concludes blaming the media on public stinginess, and suggesting that if the media claimed people in the system could recover, the public would be more responsive.

As corporate controlled media sources are always going to be prejudicial, it is important for people who have known the psychiatric system from the inside to use the internet for generating their own media. It is also important for mental patients and former mental patients to ally themselves with other movements for social justice and systemic change. Only by facing this prejudice head on, and by challenging corporate control of the media, are mental health consumers, psychiatric survivors, and former mental patients likely to make much of a dent on the long standing tradition of prejudice and discrimination that they are still enduring in the present day.

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