As a journalist, have you ever wondered what it is like to have a child that is different from other children? Have you ever wondered how parents feel when they discover that their child cannot walk, cannot sit, cannot hear or see; or a child with Autism or Asperger’s? Well, as parents of three,wonderful, healthy children, neither did my husband or I. Then, after our son was drafted into the armed forces, he became ill and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Neither of us dreamed that we could, we would … produce a defective child; not in our family; never. Well, our nightmare began when he was about 20 and was worse for him than for us; of course, our whole family was involved.
So, Mr. Journalist, before you write your next newspaper article or report on television, please think of me and the millions of people around the world who are trying to deal with mental illness in their families; who are simply trying to survive.
As I see it, the duty of a journalist is to provide a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Journalists recognize the power of words and images used to define and characterize a subject. You are encouraged to avoid stereotypical language and ensure the careful use of images, but as there are no definite guidelines when you are reporting about a person with a mental illness, it can be problematic. IF mental illness is important to a story, you may not assume that an illogical act of violence is the result of mental illness in general. Stating that a crime was committed by a person who has a history of mental illness, is often made on-scene by a first responder who might not even have direct knowledge of the person’s history. So, even if accurate, it may be irrelevant to the incident. Mental illness is not a defining characteristic of the ‘so-called criminal.’
It’s also advisable to avoid descriptions of an individual’s behavior that might contribute to the impression that all people with that particular illness exhibit similar behavior. A term like he was a schizophrenic in a rage, creates the impression that rages are common behavior for those experiencing schizophrenia.
But, Mr. Journalist, you could try to give the impression that mental illness is treatable and that people can recover; maybe not 100% but sufficiently to join the workforce and lead lives like the rest of us. That would be such a welcome change and would make a huge difference in the lives of those affected by this ravaging illness.
For every negative story about mental illness and violence, there are many positive ones that can be written about people in recovery who serve valuable roles in their communities. Reporters could write compelling personal stories about those who have recovered as there are so many who have experienced, lived through and survived mental illness who might be prepared to be interviewed and get their stories out there.