Journalists should look more deeply at those on the front lines of mental health care — before a crisis occurs

In March 2014, my uncle was being held at a hospital in British Columbia after suffering from ringing in his ears, he had trouble sleeping and experienced suicidal thoughts.

He was under the care of medical professionals who should have been working to keep him safe.

My uncle was agitated, and when he insisted he needed fresh air, the nurse on duty eventually allowed him to go outside. However, my grandmother — who was visiting at the time — was told that she was not allowed to go with him. The nurse didn’t accompany him either.

Once outside, my uncle jumped in front of a moving semi truck.

Thankfully, he suffered only severe internal and external bruising, — nothing short of a miracle.

He survived, but no thanks to the hospital staff. Those taking care of him should have known better.

With the exception of a few instances, including my uncle’s, these cases of individuals acting in dangerous and hazardous ways can often draw the attention of the media, and the public. It is at this point that we see news about individuals suffering from mental health afflictions and it is usually after horrible, violent events have taken place.

Journalists look into the individuals’ lives and interview their family and friends. But what those journalists rarely try to investigate is the training, or lack thereof, of police and medical professionals who are supposed to protect and help people living with mental illness.

It’s ironic that journalists are trained in how to cover mental health — with help through a series of nationwide public forums presented by the Toronto-based Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma — while those who interact on a daily basis with people living with a mental illness are often not up to par when it comes to trying to help these individuals.

Last year, several top Canadian journalists put their heads together and created a training guide for journalists called Mindset. This guide covers the basics of what is considered mental illness, the stigma surrounding the issue, treatment as well as recovery and so on. However, even this manual doesn’t encourage journalists to dig deeper into what is being done behind the scenes, or what happens when people with mental illness seek professional help.

Why?

“In the Mindset Guide, we set out to provide practical information on how to write about mental illness,” says Andre Picard, a Globe and Mail health columnist who wrote the forward for the guide.

“We made a deliberate decision to not focus on what should be covered. That’s the job of individual journalists (and) editors,” he explains via email.

Meanwhile, the Alberta Health Information Act strictly addresses the issue of confidentiality, which is a major obstacle for those who may want to look at what was going on before particular mental health issues made headlines.
Photo courtesy of Darko Stojanovic, Creative Commons Licensed

The Act sets “strong and effective mechanisms to protect the privacy of individuals with respect to their health information and to protect the confidentiality of that information.”

This is all well and good, but how are we, as journalists and truth-seekers, supposed to report on what isn’t happening when it comes to training those who work with mental health patients? How do we highlight the need for changes if we are turned down by laws and individuals alike?

Obviously many factors affect those living with mental illness, but a huge contributing factor is the care of the individual in the health system, and even by law enforcement. For instance, we’ve seen many headlines in the past couple years that highlight individuals in crisis who were shot by police.

An Ontario report commissioned last year by the Toronto’s chief of police was sparked by the fatal shooting of Sammy Yatim, an 18-year-old who was shot by a police officer on a streetcar in the summer of 2013. It states that between 2002 and 2012, Toronto police fatally wounded five people who were considered to be “emotionally unstable.”

The media was on this story like flies on a raw piece of meat.

They covered the police officer, who was charged with second-degree murder; Yatim’s family, who sued Toronto police; and the victim himself. The media also covered the collaboration between the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the Mental Health Commission of Canada, who held a two-day conference involving training of the police about a year after the shooting.

It seems the media does in fact report on training of police when it comes to mental illness. However, this can raise more questions, such as is this coverage enough? Are these issues being followed up after the headlines of a police shooting subside?

The Toronto report requested that actions such as containment, communication, safety of the subject, use of force and firearm avoidance all be included in the training of cops.

Furthermore, the report also recommended that a protocol be developed to allow the sharing of personal healthcare information in circumstances such as the Sammy Yatim shooting.

Overall it seems that police are trying to do something, with or without the help of the media.

But it still begs the question, is this enough when caregivers remain unaccountable and are not investigated themselves?

Accounts of how a patient is treated in the healthcare system, like that of my uncle, are rarely reported. Instead, it is violent occurrences like the Sammy Yatim shooting that journalists are drawn to. Is it laws that are holding us back, or something else?

“The most important fact to keep in mind when training health care professionals to work with people with mental illness is to be non-judgmental and demonstrate openness, acceptance and awareness,” explains Leah Yee, who recently finished her fourth year of nursing studies Mount Royal University.

Yee went through an intense seven-week mental health rotation at the Foothills Hospital in her third year of the program. Throughout her schooling, she has worked with people with a broad range of mental illnesses.

In the classroom, she has been taught crisis management, psychopharmacology medication administration, and about various mental health illnesses.

“I do believe that our generation is much more accepting and demonstrates a greater degree of acceptance than any previous generation before us,” says Yee about the health care system’s work with those facing mental illness.

So maybe it is not just the confidentiality laws that are holding us back. Perhaps it’s also a stigma around mental illness that permeates throughout culture, which at times can treat our family members and friends unfairly and shoo journalists, like myself, away.

If that’s the case, at least journalists are training themselves in this area. However, from what I saw of my uncle’s care, the medical and law enforcement professionals have a long way to go. I believe this is where the responsibility of journalists comes in to play. This issue should be covered just as if we were reporting on a new measles outbreak. It is our obligation to report on what is being done to train individuals who work on the front lines with mental health patients.Photo courtesy of Yan Arief Purwanto, Creative Commons Licensed

This subject should not be something that is hidden behind the screen of an examination room or behind a badge. Neither stigma nor over-sensitivity should stop us from asking tough questions.

It’s the journalists who have the power, if done properly, to change how people with mental illness are being treated. Maybe such news reports could save someone else’s uncle from jumping in front of a moving vehicle.

deardoff@cjournal.ca 

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Melissa Kadey at mkadey@cjournal.ca