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Black and white thinking: mental illness and the print media

By Jenny Jones - posted Monday, 7 April 2008

Mental illness is brutal, indiscriminate, and an undeniably real aspect of what it means to be human. It can possess the surrendered hope of an Edvard Munch painting one day, and the tender disquiet of a Diane Arbus photograph the next. Some people affected by mental illness realise previously unknown strengths, others learn to accept what cannot be changed; nearly all people experiencing mental illness discover an unnerving shame in the face of the persecution that media stigma stirs.

A look at the current media landscape would convince you that, like 16th century Bedlam beggars, people experiencing mental illness are comical or violent or somehow less deserving of respect.

The mainstream press in Australia continues to separate illnesses of the body and mind, alternating between trivialising and sensationalising the latter. This reached new depths last month with one tabloid’s (apparently) moral assertion that depression has become the great excuse of our time - that is, if it even exists.


Focusing on “the right to claim” depression, the article pointed out that it is philosophically impossible for a sullen, resentful teenager to suffer from the same feelings of hopelessness and despair as a grown man who has lost his livelihood. No risk of youth suicide here - with more self-examination and accountability, fewer such “fakes” would use depression as a handy excuse to avoid responsibility, neatly proving once and for all that depression is predominantly a character flaw and a sign of personal weakness. (So buck up, son!)

Just as damaging is some of the celebrity journalism that is an increasing focus of magazines and newspapers. Mental health issues, on occasions when they are not exploited as soulless appeals to mourn the “untimely death” of a “troubled star”, are fed to readers as Schadenfreude. (Consider the article on singer Britney Spears that began, “A crazed Britney Spears has tried to hang herself with a bed sheet during a week of rehab madness.”)

More often, the mocking tone of these pieces barely belies a lazy, formulaic attempt to rewrite mental illness into the popular media plots of wretched excess and descension, as if the complex range of feelings and experiences that really define mental illness were an inconvenient truth in a “fun” world of artificial, externalised conflict. In the grand tradition of melodrama, mental illness itself is allotted a categorically villainous role, where subjective thoughts and feelings are recast as - what else? - one-dimensional ballyhoo.

Australians don’t need (yet) another Kafkaesque media sideshow, but an exploration of mental illness in all its allegedly deviant - and therefore culturally threatening - manifestations. Through balanced, transparent reporting, sensitive individual expression, lucid discussion and intensely personal stories, we must look at the myths and realities, destructive and productive sides, alienating and uniquely unifying aspects of living with an oftentimes-silent scream.

“You watch the world bang door after door in your face, numbly, bitterly,” wrote poet Sylvia Plath in her journal some years ago, describing her “half-deliberately, half-desperately cutting off” from life due to bipolar disorder. “You have forgotten the secret you knew, once, ah, once, of being joyous, of laughing, of opening doors.”

Media prejudice, discrimination and stereotypes perpetuate the social isolation that can affect people experiencing mental illness. Internalising society’s compassion fatigue as shame, their subsequent reluctance to seek help robs them of their rightful place in the community, like a falsely accused Athenian enacting self-exile to avoid persecution.


“Flawed”, “defective” and “unacceptable” are just some of the careless, disempowering media labels people experiencing mental illness - and their once welcoming family, friends, and acquaintances - intuit about the emotional background noise in their life. And in these ruptured representations, amplified by a culture of emergent fear, sprout the thorny beginnings of housing, education and employment discrimination.

The needs and interests of people experiencing mental illness do not begin and end with symptom relief, so neither must stigma reduction in the media. An appropriate course of treatment, as recommended by the Australian Government's Mindframe National Media Initiative, would involve the portrayal of the whole person rather than the illness, including their relationships, work, dreams and ambitions.

Stressors that contribute to or exacerbate media stigma - such as inappropriate language or images - would be closely monitored, and education about the necessity of avoiding generalisations would be provided to assist recovery. This treatment plan must be ongoing to maintain any changes achieved, however, and repeated if editorial policies change.

The administering editors must not be tempted to provide “quick fix” tokenism that has the capacity to encourage media stigma relapse. Instead, they should aim to reduce mental stigma side effects by improving public education and awareness through factually accurate information - from vital insights into the early signs of mental illness to honest explorations of its transcendent power to heal. (Celebrity exposés that substitute physical voyeurism for emotional voyeurism are not recommended.)

Once the media stops portraying people experiencing mental illness as tainted, stops presenting them as the enemy of civil society and public order and themselves, then the one in five Australian adults who will be affected by mental illness this year will have the potential to improve their life chances and recovery possibilities.

Because let's be honest - while the media treatment of mental illness still differs fundamentally from that of physical illness, no matter what our national, racial and cultural origins, they each contribute to our shared and vastly different experiences of doing the best we can in a beautiful, frightening world.

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About the Author

Jenny Jones is a Sydney writer.

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