A Look at the portrayal of mental health and violence in the media

This See Change blog recently featured on the My1000Hours website:

There’s been lots in the news lately about mental health and violence – whether it’s Donald Trump spouting that mental health problems and not gun laws are the source of gun crime, or recent reporting around criminal trials and violent incidents.

It has been really distressing to read while some of it has been downright laughable. Either way, it all builds up to a worrying and misleading picture that violence and mental health problems go hand in hand. This is simply not true.

Violent attacks, especially in cases of murder-suicide are hugely complex issues to get our heads around. I don’t envy those who are tasked with reporting on it for everyone else. We are all left scrambling to understand or find an explanation. It is however really unfortunate that mental health problems have become the obvious scapegoat. I understand the need to find an explanation for acts that are so contrary to what we value in life but it isn’t as simple as putting it in a box marked ‘mental health problems’ and moving on to something else more comforting.

The reality is that people experiencing mental ill health are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. The sad truth is that they are 11 times more likely to be the victims of violence whether by someone else or through self-harm. Your age, sex, social status and what’s going on in your life are much better predictors of future violence than a mental health problem.

The reality is that graphic coverage of violent incidents can be really distressing to people who are going through a tough time. Ask someone who’s been through it and they’ll tell you that often when you’re in that dark place, you’re more sensitive and have the least appetite for dark stories which can really play on your mind.

The reality is that when mental health is misleadingly pinpointed as the reason for someone’s violent behaviour, it sets us all back on the progress we have made in starting to open up about our own and others’ mental health. Every time that myth about mental health and violence gets spread around, it closes the door for future conversations. Think about the person who is now even more scared to reach out and ask for help. Think about the employer who now doesn’t want to take a chance on someone with depression. Is letting this myth circulate good enough?

The reality is that experiencing a mental health problem is simply part and parcel of the ups and downs of life and can happen to any of us but it is the silence and myths around mental health that stop people seeking help and make the experience of being unwell much harder.

No-one is to blame here. The silence and stigma around mental health is not deliberate or malicious. It’s just, as a hangover from centuries of silence, we don’t know what we should say or do. We simply haven’t talked about mental health enough but misleading stories like this are no reason to stop and need to be urgently challenged.

See Change is the national campaign to challenge stigma and we’ve gathered ambassadors from across the country who are ready to fill that vacuum and share their stories of personal experience of mental health problems to paint a truer picture so that no-one else feels they have to suffer in silence.

One of See Change’s ambassadors, Nicola Hynds, put it best when she said;

“Stigma has delayed my recovery many times. I am okay with having a psychotic illness but sometimes other people’s ignorance can change that.

When I hear someone describe Schizophrenia as a multiple personality disorder or use the word schizo, it takes away a little bit of the resilience and self-acceptance I have worked so hard to build up.

Every time I see my mental health problem used in the media as an excuse or explanation for a person’s crime or wrong doing it can bring on feeling of shame and a need to justify my illness to those who tar us all with the same brush based on one individual’s actions.”

Our mental health needs more airtime, more attention. It does not belong in the crime pages or filed under ‘excuses for inexcusable action’. Too many Irish people this summer will be too scared to tell their friends, family, neighbours and colleagues what’s really going on for them for fear of how they might react or what they might think.

It’s time we looked at our mental health for what it is, our greatest personal resource. Of course we are going to experience dips at different points in our lives but that’s all the more reason to talk about it in the open.

Sorcha Lowry is campaign manager with See Change, Ireland’s movement to end the stigma and discrimination of mental health problems.www.seechange.ie

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