‘Psycho Killer Shatters Young Family!’
I had an interview with a PhD student from Melbourne Uni last week. It was for a study into what can be done to improve media reporting around severe mental illness (SMI) to reduce stigma. The media is largely responsible for the way people like me are perceived by the general public. So, I was delighted to contribute to this study.
Our trusted news sources are slickly practiced at generating gory headlines that draw eyeballs to them like magnets. If SMI is thought to contribute to a crime, it is either ignored or thrown into the story as a cold, hard after thought. Something that can’t be changed and is barely acknowledged as an illness.
The main characters in these horrific accounts may have an undiagnosed, poorly managed, or unmanaged SMI, but the journalist in the by-line doesn’t dig deep enough to expose the reasons for this:
Society does not care about or for us in the same way they do for others with serious, chronic, intermittent potentially fatal illnesses.
Our public mental health system is broken. Especially the hospital system. It not only fails to deliver adequate care, it damages patients. Staff are overworked and stressed because they lack the resources to do their jobs properly. Patients are asked to sleep in chairs because there are no beds and are likely to be discharged long before they should be. And that’s barely the beginning of the list of failings.
Even if you can afford private health insurance and can bypass our train wreck of a public mental health system, there are barriers to good care, which aren’t reported either.
I know people who have private health insurance, who are very unwell with a mental illness, and yet they are reluctant to access high quality, private psychiatric hospital care.
Psychiatric hospitals are still shrouded in stigma.
Ironically that stigma is not entirely unfounded given the state of our public psychiatric hospital wards. But it prevents the people who could potentially be helped much earlier in the course of their illness, from accessing treatment.
And yet this endless list of failures, the complexity of stigma, the lack of care factor are barely mentioned, let alone reported extensively in the media.
The perception of people living with SMI is also not helped by the absence of positive first-person narratives to balance the poisonous slander of the ‘Psycho’ head line.
Unlike patients with more palatable illnesses, (think those with pastel coloured fundraising days) the main stream media does not give people with SMI room for their own narratives. And if they did, it’s not as simple as putting out a call for submissions. SMI affects cognition, concentration, logic, thoughts and emotions. It is impossible to coherently narrate our stories while we are inhabiting an alternate reality. The nature of our illnesses means we can only have a voice when we are not symptomatic. And once we’re well, our illnesses may have left us broken, homeless, unloved, and covered in scar tissue, none of which are conducive to looking the world confidently in the eye and telling our stories.
Then there’s stigma – again. Chicken and egg stigma. The more stigma, the fewer people want to relay their experiences, the more stigma, the fewer people…
Even when you have a voice, are well enough, have stared down stigma and want to get your narrative out there, being heard is difficult. To date the manuscript for my memoir has been repeatedly praised by publishers for the ‘quality of the writing and the importance of the story’ but has also been repeatedly rejected for not being ‘commercial’ enough.
I am tenacious and determined to eventually have it published, through self-publication if necessary. But I sometimes wonder whether the manuscript might have been deemed ‘commercial’ enough by now if it included a violent account of me harming my children, or at the very least one of me running around naked and babbling in our local shopping centre?
The last question the PhD student asked me for the interview was:
‘What information do you want journalists to understand and be aware of in their reporting on SMI?’
Here are my thoughts for journalists:
Go deeper. Make our governments accountable for our lack of care. Make your readers accountable for perpetuating stigma.
Don’t automatically speak for us as though we can’t be trusted. We are not cheap caricatures to be gawked at from inside voyeuristic ‘that could never happen to me’ bubbles by people who don’t realise these illnesses can happen to anyone.
We are complex and nuanced. Our lives are filled with so many unspoken and unwritten truths. Let us tell them.