02/08/2012 04:54 EST | Updated 04/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Why the Media Shuns Mental Illness

Their efforts are laudable but somewhat misguided. The Mental Health Commission of Canada is concerned with the fact that the media regularly stigmatizes people with mental illness. To counteract that, they are holding lectures across Canada targeting journalism students to get them to think about what they write and the words they use to describe the mentally ill. Their most recent meeting was in early February at Ryerson in Toronto.

One of the presenters is Robert Whiteley from the Douglas Institute at McGill University in Montreal who is conducting research on behalf of the commission on what appears in the press about the mentally ill. He has found, after reviewing 10,000 articles from the past six years, that the media stories about the mentally ill tend to focus on violence, crime, and homelessness. His presentation on the same topic last year at the University of King's College in Halifax can be seen on here.

Is anyone surprised by this? The media reports on news and it is news when someone with a serious untreated mental illness commits a crime -- particularly a violent crime. Many of the homeless in cities across North America happen to be people with untreated mental illness so, when there is a news story about homelessness, it likely mentions serious mental illness.

There is nothing newsworthy, unfortunately, in the stories of the many people with treated mental illness who are coping and accomplishing. There is the old adage that when a dog bites a man that's not news. When a man bites a dog, that is news. As Globe and Mail health reporter Andre Picard, who also presented at this symposium, said, "we don't cover normalcy, we're drawn to the spectacular." But, he went on, we have to put these spectacular stories into proper context. That context is that there is so much untreated mental illness in society. That should be part of the story and this fact is the biggest health issue that we face today. His address can also be seen on youtube.

In an earlier post, I commended the commission for a program at the University of Calgary designed to teach medical students to have less stigmatizing attitudes towards those with mental illness. That is a needed and laudable program. But, spending money to demonstrate that the media focuses on spectacular news events is not. We all know that and the media will continue to do so regardless. That sells papers and draws audiences.

What the commission can and should do is to work towards reducing the number of people in society with untreated serious mental illnesses and publicize more success stories. An interesting contrast between the homelessness that many see and the success with proper treatment that most do not see is illustrated in this short 30-minute documentary. It can be seen in its entirety online thanks to Culture Unplugged and the Spirit Enlightened virtual film festival

I am a bit biased mentioning this film but judge for yourself. The homeless and ill depicted do not have to be homeless and ill. They can and should be treated. Without proper treatment, the talented and articulate artists in this video -- all of whom have struggled with serious mental illnesses -- would not have been able to have accomplished what they did. They likely would have been homeless, in jail or in hospital. The commission could divert the money they spent on this media study to more productive ventures.

Bell Canada's #Lets Talk Campaign For Mental Health