Reports often either ignore the issue altogether, or cast blame to explain violent and irrational acts

Just days after the devastating crash of the Germanwings 4U9525 into the French Alps, the story has blown up in the media.

According to an article released by The Telegraph on Friday, the co-pilot Andrea Lubitz may have battled a mental illness.

The article says that Lubitz was treated for an unknown illness in Feb. 2015, but not for depression.

Even if depression or another mental illness wasn’t the cause of Lubitz crashing the Germanwings plane that killed the 150 passengers and crew on-board, it was still a personal issue that Lubitz felt that he needed to hide.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, almost half of those who feel they have suffered from depression or anxiety have never gone to see a doctor about these problems.

Of the major media stories in the past year, I can think of at least two that focused on mental illness to explain irrational and violent behaviours.

A mental illness is usually the first conclusion that readers draw when the media publishes these stories.

Kandi McElary, director of Wellness Services at Mount Royal University, suggests that such coverage can contribute to the pervasiveness of stigma around mental health issues.

“The media focuses on behaviors that are not acceptable in society,” McElary said. “Then people are reading these stories and probably making an assumption or generalization that everyone who has a mental illness has behaviours that are not normal or don’t fit in with the values and norms of society.”

Despite the fact that, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20 per cent of all Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, our society maintains this stigma that mental health is not something that should be talked about.

As a university student, the only time that I hear that other students are struggling with mental health and mental illness is when they write about it anonymously on the MRU Confessions Facebook page. But I personally don’t think that issues with mental health should be a confession, it should be an open discussion.

Because of this, I attended Fear and Fact, held at the University of Calgary in March. It was a discussion among media professionals about the challenges in reporting on violence, mental health and justice.

André Picard, a journalist at the Globe and Mail spoke about that fact that journalists cover the unusual and extreme.

“We give extensive coverage to Vince Li, who killed someone during a psychotic episode,” Picard said. “That leaves people with the impression that everyone with schizophrenia is violent. In fact, the vast majorities are not violent. But we don’t write about people with schizophrenia who have jobs and normal lives –why would we?”

Picard added that only a small percentage of those with mental illnesses have schizophrenia, the most extreme form of which gives a skewed ‎perception to the public.

However, as something that affects so many Canadians, mental health is a topic that remains underrepresented in the media.

In an email, Meghan Grant, a journalist at CBC, commented on the expectation to file an article every day.

“I’m doing fewer and fewer series or in-depth feature stories. That could contribute to the underrepresentation of mental-health-related stories in the media because to be done properly, those types of stories involve a lot of leg work and are often complicated,” Grant said. “As a reporter, you need to have the time to research and you need access to families and experts.”

As a future journalist, a media environment where I don’t have time to write articles about issues that effect so many people isn’t a world that I want to start my career in.

However, mental illness and mental health is a topic that seems to be talked about more now than in the past.

That’s certainly the case for McElary and other health professionals who are helping treat the problem everyday.

McElary said that because mental health is the focus of her job, it seems like it is all people ever talk about.

McElary said she believes that journalists need to communicate that mental illness impacts each and every one of us in society, whether we’re experiencing it ourselves or through someone whom we know and love.

“It’s not ‘us and them’ it’s everyone,” said McElary.

McElary said that one way to challenge this stigma is by sharing stories.

“A high proportion of people experience mental illness sometime over their lifetime and I believe stories of people’s experiences provide real insight,” said McElary. “[However] sometimes it’s hard to get shared stories because people talking about their mental illness and challenges with mental illness are hard stories for people to share.”

And that goes back to the stigma that our society is perpetuating. The question is when will this change?

khuitema@cjournal.ca

Photo courtesy of flickr.com