Dear Media: Headlines like these don’t help everyday people dealing with mental health issues, please choose your words carefully.
Below is the text of a talk I gave last Wednesday for Headline, the national media monitoring programme for mental health and suicide as part of a panel of people giving different perspectives on how mental health and suicide is presented in the media. I gave my two cents as someone who deals with mental health issues, and also as someone who blogs about it openly to the public.
2 years ago a German pilot by the name of Andreas Lubitz locked himself in the cockpit of the passenger jet he was co-piloting, and flew it full force into the side of a mountain, murdering all 144 passengers and 6 crew members. In the aftermath, it emerged that he had been dealing with a number of mental health issues. the full facts of this horrible case are way beyond the scope of my expertise and a bit off-topic, but what became clear to me when reading tweets / updates / online commentary, was that a lot of people – and tabloid publications – fell back on the word ‘depression’ within a sentence or two to describe the pilot and explain the action he had taken..and it terrified me.
Not because I’m a latent mass-murderer in fear of being discovered, but because I too have depression – would people think someone like me is capable of such a thing??
The narrative behind that monstrous act of violence frightened a lot of people; those who didn’t understand mental illness, and for a whole other reason, those who do. Those of us living with some of the symptoms and conditions that the media mentioned when talking about the pilot felt suddenly very exposed to a world that was equating mass murder with mental health conditions we all dealt with on a regular basis. And that was wrong.
So I got angry. And sent out this tweet:
Dear hysterical media. I have depression, but I don’t feel like killing innocent people, because MASS MURDER isn’t a symptom. Get a grip.
— Jen Ronan (@JayRow) March 27, 2015
That German pilot may have been depressed and suicidal, but he was also a murderer. They are two separate things that can exist in the same person. I’m fairly sure I’m not one of them. I hope…
Look, I know things are not all that simple and there are far more qualified folk here than I who can clarify points, but this is just an example of how stigma attached to mental health issues can cause a lot of grief for poor ordinary souls like me who are just trying to get by & deal with their dodgy brain chemistry in the best way they can, without fear of being feared or misjudged on a scale such as that surrounding the horrible events of Germanwings Flight 9525.
But you know what? It’s getting better. Especially in Ireland. As someone who blogs regularly and sometimes fairly brutally about the realities of living with depression and anxiety, I’ve found a whole new receptivity online towards mental health that has steadfastly made its way into mainstream media over the last few years. There has been a huge increase in coverage given to the level of mental health care services (and lack thereof) in Ireland, and also to the sterling & often thankless work done by communities and voluntary organisations for those on a local level who are helping those dealing with a wide spectrum of mental health issues.
Special mention goes to the groups of trained Suicide Prevention volunteers in my own home city of Limerick who walk the streets and bridges over the Shannon at all hours to be a caring face and a soft voice to anyone who may be in suicidal distress. Not all heroes wear capes, but many of them walk the bridges of Limerick and other cities at night. If you want to have a read about a few of these groups, click on any of the images below to head to their websites, and you can also donate to them this way as well if you feel moved to do so 😊
There is so much respect for mental health-related topics being covered in the media that not a day goes by where there isn’t some type of article in the news connected to it, in the interest of creating an open dialogue and eliminating the stigma surrounding mental health issues, particularly in not being afraid to talk about the suicide epidemic all around the country, using language that would previously have been considered taboo, and also encouraging a less incriminatory language surrounding it e.g. “died by suicide” as opposed to “committed suicide”. It’s still a work in progress, but it’s still progress all the same.
Part of the cross to bear when dealing with mental health issues and trying to be an advocate for it in the outside world, is that not only do you have to experience it, you also have to explain it, defend it and extinguish people’s fears by continuously having to point to the likes of Andreas Lubitz and say, ‘I’m not like them’.
Thankfully these days we don’t have to look far to find the counter-dialogue fighting against the tacky villagers-with-pitchforks inciting headlines in certain publications. Many prominent blogs and online publications have posted articles challenging those who choose sensationalist backward thinking over insight and information, and as tough as the fight is, it appears that compassion and understanding may be starting to win. For example XOJANE, one of America’s best known online magazines for women, tackled the media’s handling of the Germanwings tragedy directly using examples like those I mentioned above:
“All over my social media feed, people have been saying what depression is and isn’t in an effort to separate the millions of us who deal this from the word ‘killer’. Some form of the following statement was made over and over again:
The fact that we in Ireland now have full houses for events all over the country specifically focused on mental health issues and raising awareness is a fantastic thing. Many prominent figures in the media, music & TV industry are harnessing their influence and speaking out about their own experiences with mental health issues, along with some who may not deal with mental health issues themselves, but just feel the same way many of us do. They join us in saying that mental health stigma helps nobody, and want to do their part in destroying it by being proud, visible and vocal advocates for invaluable organisations like Pieta House, Aware, Spun Out, See Change, Shine etc. Some may say it’s almost the fashionable thing to be involved with these days, and to that I say FANTASTIC. Whatever helps!
For the Green Ribbon Campaign this year I was asked to contribute an article to The Journal.ie’s Voices section to share my own story about the battle against mental health stigma, both in the outside world, and very importantly, within myself. Click the image of the article below to read it:
I’ll admit I had serious nerves as the publication date loomed, because once again, despite how far we’ve come, I was terrified how it would be received by the general public, and more terrifyingly, the dreaded comments section. (I know, NEVER READ THE COMMENTS SECTION of any news publication, but I couldn’t help it – my ego got the better of me) But it turned out fine. In fact, it kicked off a massive debate among readers about the system itself and how more needs to be done to help those in need, and many felt comfortable enough to disclose their own issues as well – there was no demonisation, no worries that I or anyone else dealing with depression or any other mental health issue was about to go on a killing spree anytime soon simply because of our depression or anxiety or whatever, and that is where you can see the progress. If you can spot a bit of compassion and understanding in an online comments section of all places, you know there’s some kind of a positive seismic shift happening in the collective consciousness!
My two main hopes for the future of media coverage and treatment of mental health matters in Ireland are firstly, that the media in Ireland maintain the informed coverage about mental health issues and the need for greater improvements in our healthcare system in general and secondly, to keep publishing personal pieces written from the perspective of those actually dealing with mental health issues themselves to humanise the story, to further destroy the stigma and taboo that haunted this area for so many years.
Thanks to Headline for letting me add my two cents to the conversation today, and congratulations on ten years fighting the good fight. Keep up the good work!