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Journalists Should Be Educated About Mental Health

The year is 2000. I’m working as a journalist in a small Connecticut shoreline town. I’m barely hanging on. My brain is shorting out. No one on or off staff knows how to help me. 

During this time, I would stay up all night working on stories, then come into work the next morning disheveled and ranting. I would laugh at inappropriate things. My bipolar disorder, diagnosed in 1996 while I was in college, had been triggered and I refused to take medication since the ones they put me on didn’t work anyway. 

A year later, I applied and was accepted into the Medill School of Journalism for graduate school. Within my first two weeks of being on campus, I had a panic attack and manically told my autobiography to the wrong person. Not long after that, I was asked to leave. No one at the school knew how to deal with someone having a mental health crisis. They were good journalists, writing stories about the use of restraints with the mentally ill population, or the one percent of violent offenders who had mental health diagnoses. No one in the field of journalism, however, could give me any advice. There was no place where I could turn to find out how to make myself well again. I badly wanted to be a journalist, but I first needed help controlling my episodes. I needed a path that didn’t mean working full-time for a daily newspaper—far too stressful. 

For a long time, I was dropped out of the system, raging through mania and depression. There was little work I could do. What I wanted to do was write, but this would mean getting treatment. 

I did get treatment eventually; it took years to find a working combination of medications, different than the few they originally gave me. I went on to get my Master’s in Writing at another school not far from Medill’s campus. 

Journalists need to be educated on mental health issues and what some of their colleagues go through. There are a lot of stories out there that show that mental illness can be portrayed in a positive light. Recently, I have attended a panel discussion on mental health and the media, held at the Connecticut Public Broadcasting’s facility and hosted by Mental Health Connecticut on October 26, 2016. 

The panel began with a discussion about how mental illnesses and mental hospitals are often used as a Halloween gimmick; for example, a Halloween display in someone’s yard titled “Cedar Krest Hospital,” as cited in this article

“Instinctively, people [would] feel differently if they drove by a Halloween display of an Alzheimer’s ward,” said Bill Lichtenstein, veteran media producer.

“Mental illness results in unpredictable behavior. Media flames it up because [some] people become dangerous. This is what drives public perceptions. The vast majority of people take meds and live their lives,” Lichtenstein said.

Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty (D-CT)’s own grandmother suffered from severe depression and often couldn’t get out of bed. She went onto be a radio host.

“This is like the role the media had in the 1980’s with changing the narrative of how people think about AIDS,” Esty said. “We are you. Lots of people in media and politics suffer from mental illness, especially bipolar.”

The panel also focused on the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Series on police shootings of people with mental illness in Massachusetts .

“It is important to tell human stories to illuminate systemic problems,” said Jenna Russell, a Globe reporter who has worked on these stories.

Changing the language used to describe mental health conditions is imperative in telling a good story and beginning to make a difference.

“Sometimes you have to tell a hard story in a hard way if it makes the mental health system change,” said John Dankosky, director of the New England News Collaborative and host of WNPR’s weekly show NEXT. 

Read more from Alexis at Coming Up for Air and at her personal website. Read her other IBPF posts here.

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