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There's A More Honest Way To Depict Mental Illness In Media

01/24/2017 01:36 EST | Updated 01/25/2017 04:34 EST
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Late last month, I noticed a tabloid magazine cover that outraged me. It showed photographs of an angry-looking Kanye West and a distressed Kim Kardashian, with the blazing headline "Trapped With A Madman: Inside Kim's Twisted World With Kanye." This was shortly after Kanye had checked into hospital for a psychological evaluation.

A few of weeks ago, I watched a television show in which one scene depicted the parents of the teenaged protagonist (who had been having a serious emotional breakdown) getting into a heated argument. While the mother wanted their daughter to talk to a psychotherapist, the father's said something like "our daughter doesn't need to whine about her problems to a stranger; she just needs to suck it up and move on."

I was horrified by the reckless representation of mental illness.

And then last week, I came across a music video that graphically depicts the heart-wrenching aftermath of a romantic breakup, the protagonist's subsequent descent into clinical depression and his ultimate death by suicide. In the final scene, his ex-girlfriend lays down beside the corpse, appearing to contemplate a similar fate for herself as a final gesture of a grand romance. To say that I was horrified by the video's reckless representation of mental illness and romanticized notion of suicide would be an understatement. I was livid.

While the well-meaning artists associated with this video wanted to use their public platform to call attention to depression and suicide, how could they have missed the glaring fact that their graphic and romanticized depiction of the topic could possibly encourage copycat suicides? Did they stop to think how somebody with a history of suicidal ideation would feel watching this? Also, had they considered how triggering the video might be for fans who may be coming to terms with the suicide loss of a loved one?

One of the reasons I write about mental health (other than the fact that I am a mental health counsellor and survivor myself) is because of how mental illness continues to be depicted in the media we all consume. The media that we all absorb, and that seeps into our consciousness.

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(Photo: Laurence Mouton via Getty Images)

We continue to be bombarded with graphically depicted messages that either romanticize suicide in terms of simplistic Romeo and Juliet dreck, or unfairly portray those in the midst of a mental illness crisis as "mad." It gets so ingrained into our consciousness that we start believing falsehoods that keep perpetuating negative stereotypes and stigma.

Can we please get back to talking about actual facts? Can we please focus on talking about mental illness in a more responsible, honest and empathic way? Can we each play our part to help end the stigma?

Can we each play our part to help end the stigma?

FACT People with mental illness are no more likely than the general population to commit violent acts.

FACT Every day worldwide, someone ends their life by suicide every 40 seconds. In eight out of those 10 suicides, the person will have hinted it to family and friends beforehand.

FACT In Canada, 90 per cent of those people who are depressed never seek treatment, despite the fact that a whopping 80 per cent of those who do respond well to it. Treatment works.

FACT Twenty per cent of all Canadians will likely develop a mental illness in their lifetime. It might be you. It might be your spouse, sibling, parent, child, friend or colleague.

We can each play a part in changing how mental illness is portrayed by the media we consume. Choose not to buy those offensive tabloids with salacious headlines; for that matter, don't succumb to the clickbait online, either. Share your concerns on social media with publishers, producers and other media companies.

We can choose our words carefully in our everyday conversations. We can stop using the words "crazy" or "mental" in a derogatory way. We can stop referring to people by their mental illness. Instead of saying "she is so OCD," try "she has OCD." Instead of "schizo," try "person with schizophrenia."

Telling someone who has clinical depression that he can "get over it" if he would just "suck it up and get through it" is minimizing how he feels. Try offering a listening ear instead, and open with "I'm sorry you're going through such a difficult time; how can I help?"

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(People Images via Getty Images)

I want nothing more than to live in a stigma-free world that has empathy and understanding for people battling mental illness. But until that happens, I will keep speaking out loud and proud on the subject of mental health.

What's one thing you're going to do to keep the conversation going?

If you are are in the midst of a serious emotional crisis and are feeling suicidal:

Understand that depression is a serious disturbance in thoughts, feelings and perceptions that is severe enough to affect your day-to-day functioning. It requires immediate professional treatment. Depression is not something that you can just will away with a stiff upper lip or a pithy mantra.

If you can't think of an alternative besides suicide, it's not that solutions aren't available, it's that you just haven't yet found the right treatment for you. Make an appointment with your family doctor and follow your prescribed treatment plan.

Get support from your social circle; tell a loved one you trust how bad things are for you. Caring friends and family can be the lifeline you need to lift you up. They love you and want to help you.

If you're in Canada and are feeling suicidal, contact your local suicide prevention crisis centre for immediate support. You are not alone, even if your suicidal thoughts may lead you to believe otherwise.

You are not alone, even if your suicidal thoughts may lead you to believe otherwise.

If you know someone who is depressed and/or suicidal:

Suicides can be prevented if each of us became familiar with the clinical warning signs of distress. Has your loved one's mood or behaviour changed recently (withdrawal, anger, restlessness, hopelessness, helplessness)? Has s/he been having work or school performance issues? Is s/he using drugs or alcohol to cope with the distress? Has s/he talked about having suicidal thoughts?

Talk to your loved one openly, and listen non-judgmentally and empathically. Ask if they are suicidal and if so, whether they have a plan. Ask them what you can do to help. If they are in the midst of an acute suicidal crisis, do not leave them alone. Call 911 and/or your local suicide prevention crisis centre for direction, and escort your loved one to an emergency room immediately.

Once the crisis has passed, help them find follow-up professional help in the form of medical and psychological attention. A trained counsellor will help your loved one improve their mental health by teaching them to develop a balance in all aspects of life, including physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

This January 25, Let's Talk to raise awareness and help end the stigma around mental health. On Bell Let's Talk Day, Bell will donate 5¢ more towards mental health initiatives in Canada, by counting every text, call, tweet, Instagram post, Facebook video view and Snapchat geofilter.

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