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  • K. McConnell, R. Psych.

The Conveyors of Mental Health Messaging: A Wishlist for the Media

There has been a lot of attention as of late around how social media and mass media shape our culture. The way that messages are sent and received, such as in the news media or social media, have important implications for how we as social beings interact with one another on a personal level. Unfortunately, when it comes to mental illness, the media often gets it wrong. When it comes to reporting on mental illness, here is my media wish list:

1. Mental Illness DOES NOT = Dangerous and Unpredictable

When horrible things happen, it is natural to search for an answer or a reason. Unfortunately, in the media this often leads to scapegoating. Scapegoating occurs when we project our feelings of frustration or anger towards an individual or a group. It would seem that the media often looks for a targeted group to fulfill our need for answers, and often people with mental illness are the target. In one recent violent attack where multiple people were killed, within 24 hours the media had gone from saying the event was a possible terror attack, to "an issue of mental health," to a misogynist seeking revenge against women. While the cumulative effect of this error in messaging is concerning, it is a person with a "mental health issue" that is the most aggravating to me. So often people with mental illness are unfairly portrayed as unpredictable and dangerous, when time and time again history and research proves that the majority of people who commit violent crimes do not have a diagnosed mental illness. What's worse is that these errors further entrench people from getting help that they need. It prevents the person who is depressed and withdrawn from reaching out to their networks, it inhibits the scared Mom from talking to their primary care physician, and most importantly, it lets society off the hook for advocating for policy changes that support mental health and wellness for everyone.

2. Language Matters, So Get it Right

mental health states

Our society seems to be a little confused about the difference between mental illness and a bad day. When I work in schools, I hear more and more students using the words "anxiety" and "depression" to describe their current mood states. But we have to be careful with using these words too heedlessly. Dr. Stan Kutcher, the Director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre in Mental Health Policy, has published a fantastic video that helps to distinguish between a mental illness and mental distress. Sensationalizing mental health language has important implications for our youth, and our own perceptions. When we understand that feeling worried about a looming work deadline is not clinical anxiety, but rather, an adaptive response to our environment that leads us to focus in and get our work done, we can then be proud when we pass along our finished product to our boss. On the flip side, if we think that our worry might be clinical anxiety, we are less likely to feel capable to handle it. This is another consequence of the medical model being applied to mental illness, where people sometimes believe that mental illness is solely physiological and therefore, seek pharmacological treatment alone. Supporting those with mental illness and promoting self-efficacy and empowerment are the best ways to improve their quality of life.

3. Destigmatize Mental Illness by Effectively Framing Messages

In order to create policies that help promote mental health and prevent mental illness we need the media to employ individuals who can convey messages that bring us together as a community to support each other. We need to do away with fatalistic and deterministic attitudes towards mental illness. It is not about one sole individual pulling up their bootstraps, but rather it is about us all being able to reach out for others to help get on those old clunky boots. The Frameworks Institute is a nonprofit organization that works to communicate and reframe social and scientific topics in such a way that our common values of ingenuity and interdependence are ignited for the common good. It strips away polarization, falsities, and stigma. Check out their latest publication on how to effectively frame adolescent substance use by employing the use of the 'boiling over' metaphor, whereby positive environments and protective factors help to turn down the heat and prevent substance use from boiling over into a bigger problem.

If you are struggling with your own mental health, hold your head up high and reach out for help and support. Let's all help to shift the tide on how the media portrays mental health and illness.

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