We Should Talk About Mental Health With Respect

Janine Francolini

In any given year, one out of every five adults in the U.S. has an experience with a mental health disorder. The tenth leading cause of death for U.S. adults is suicide. For individuals ages 10-24, the second leading cause of death is suicide. But you wouldn’t know it.

You wouldn’t know it because of the way we talk about mental health in this country — the way we shame and mock each disorder, each symptom, each call for help. As a society, we have made a serious health condition something that is easier to hide than to address. And we need to change things around, starting with the way we talk about mental health in our public spaces, specifically in the media.

This past Sunday, the singer Sinéad O’Connor wrote a troubling Facebook post that detailed her intention to die from an overdose. Thankfully, the Irish authorities were alerted, and O’Connor was located and given medical attention. She is now, reportedly, “safe and sound.”

A fierce advocate for mental health rights, O’Connor has dealt with depression for many years. She has, herself, spoken out against the way the media characterizes mental health issues, condemning the use of the word “crazy,” and shaming paparazzi for trying to make a “buffoonery and mockery” of young, female celebrities with mental health disorders.

It is therefore especially disturbing to see many similar tactics being used by media outlets to make a “buffoonery and mockery” of Ms. O’Connor, after she wrote a worrying new post on Facebook, detailing her recent thoughts and feelings.

O’Connor’s post is not something to be laughed at — it is a major sign that help is needed. Yet, some of the articles I’ve read online have shown an incredible amount of disrespect for individuals with mental health disorders and ignorance of how to even discuss these issues. This article in particular, from Yahoo! News, feels dismissive, sensationalized and naive, as it republishes O’Connor’s entire social media post, and ends with a flippant “hope Sinead gets all of the help that she needs …”

What this reveals is that popular culture still has a strong influence on how we portray mental health in the public realm. Therefore, I’m calling on journalists and media professionals to join me in transforming the way we approach the way we talk about these issues in the media.

Earlier this fall, the Carter Center released an important resource guide that looks to help journalists more thoroughly understand, and radically increase the accurate reporting of behavioral health disorders. The guide can be found here and asks journalists to consider these three questions when reporting on mental health: 1) “Is mental illness or substance use relevant to the story? 2) What is your source for the mental illness and substance use diagnosis? 3) What is the most accurate language to use?”

In our work at the Flawless Foundation we look at the holistic issues around this topic and the impact of the use of language when discussing mental health. We recently called attention in our blog to the insensitive Halloween episode of Modern Family where mental illness was used as the theme for Halloween fun for the second year in a row. The moral and ethical questions we would add to this list from the Carter Center are: “Will your reporting cause more harm to this person’s health condition by shaming and mocking them?” “Are you reporting from your highest self — with integrity and compassion for another human being’?” “Are you sensationalizing someone’s medical symptoms for entertainment?”

Let’s put it this way: If you were asked to report on any other illness, like cancer or heart disease, how would you report on it? Would you use language that was inaccurate or offensive about those medical conditions? Would you make a “buffoonery and mockery” of those afflicted?

You — me — Sinéad O’Connor — we are all flawless beings. It’s time that we started writing and reporting on mental health with the accuracy and respect that all flawless beings deserve. Let’s face it — as we have learned from many other civil/human rights issues — #LanguageMatters!

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