Well, what a week it’s been for mental health, particularly depression, in the media. It’s been a very challenging time to be depressed when the condition has been so firmly under the microscope for all the wrong reasons.
We started off with the terrible news that a Co-Pilot for Germanwings had deliberately crashed a plane killing all passengers and crew. Within 48 hours there were revelations about his mental health and dramatic headlines including “Suicide pilot had a long history with depression. Why on Earth was he allowed to fly?” and “Madman in cockpit”. This was all well before any investigations had been carried out and the news stories were written with a huge amount of guesswork and lots of assumptions being made. Numerous articles have since sprung up suggesting that anyone with a mental illness shouldn’t be allowed responsibility “just in case”. Good luck filling jobs when 1 in 10 of us have the condition. This article written by Piers Morgan just epitomises how damaging taking the actions of one person with a mental illness can be with a ridiculously dramatic headline to boot Depressed pilots on medication for mental illness should not be flying passenger planes. That’s not insensitive – it’s protecting lives.
Following this, there was a huge backlash against the way the media had reported Andreas Lubitz’ history of depression. This backlash came from bloggers, sufferers and mental health charities, all condemning the way it had been reported. Mind issued a statement to the media, found here, in which they asked the media to report mental illness more sensitively and not be quite so simplistic or assumptive while facts are still emerging.
We then had the delight of reading Katie Hopkins’ very public views and opinions on depression which spread like wildfire through the Twittersphere. Her comments included – calling suicidal people “Attention seeking b*stards”, that “There is no stigma around depression. There are only realists and people pissed off because their train is delayed.” and this particularly archaic view “To be diagnosed as depressed is the holy grail of illness for many. The ultimate passport to self-obsession. Get a grip people.” If you can stomach it, more can be read here. I think we’re all well aware now that this woman is a professional troll who loves nothing more than to identify a minority/vulnerable group and then make sweeping generalisations and wild and outrageous claims about them just to get a reaction from the public. However, when you attack the depressed, you’re doing a very dangerous thing, particularly in the aftermath of us being dubbed by the media as unable to work, unstable and dangerous. I’m sure the majority of the depressed community were left reeling following the media headlines and stories after the Germanwings crash but jumping on that bandwagon and attacking us while we’re down is spineless and vile. Katie Hopkins has clearly never experienced depression, so why she thinks she should have an opinion on the condition I don’t know! She states herself that she suffers from epilepsy, I do not have epilepsy and therefore wouldn’t go around publicly posting tweets about something I not only don’t have to live with, but also know nothing about. Depression is characterised by low self-esteem and low self-worth and also suicidal tendencies. Attacking depressed people and suggesting such untrue and offensive things is not only damaging and hurtful (I spent part of Sunday crying at what she’d written), but also very dangerous when the media has already suggested that we should not be trusted or given any responsibility or power which feeds right into many of our own (incorrect) beliefs about ourselves.This is far more likely to increase suicide rates than elicit spontaneous recovery!
With 1 in 4 of us experiencing mental health problems at any one time and a lifetime prevalence of 1 in 3, people who currently aren’t mentally ill but are sticking the knife in and spreading stigmatising stories and information need to be very careful. If it’s not you that gets ill, then it probably will be your mother or father, or one of your two children, or one of your two best friends. We now live in a society where mental illness is so common that we all live within its glass house and should therefore be very careful about throwing stones. It only takes a few negative events in close succession to take down the strongest of people who never “seemed like the type” to get depression. Because, much as many health people hate to admit, depression isn’t about weakness, it’s not about a “type” and it’s not even about your circumstances. Depression is the most common mental illness and spans all ages, genders, races, economic backgrounds, education levels and careers. There are variances in prevalence within these groups with people suffering more hardship being more likely to get depression, but the rich and highly educated are by no means immune. So wake up, smell the coffee, and thank your lucky stars if you’re not currently one of the 1 in 4 people like me who have to struggle every day but still manage to function as human beings. We’re perfectly capable of holding down jobs, of having responsibility, of doing just about anything that a person without a mental illness can do. Sometimes, we might need extra support, or a break, or some treatment but we’re just as capable of being teachers, nurses, pilots, mental health workers, parents, friends and politicians as you are. We’re not dangerous, we’re ill, there are a few mentally ill people who do evil things like crashing planes, just like there are a few “healthy” people who do the same. Nothing to do with health!
When I talk to people about stigma and say that I campaign against it and tell my story so that others can gain understanding of what it’s like, I’m often greeted by responses about how stigma has reduced and that now is the least stigmatised time to be mentally ill and people even suggest that stigma about mental illness has ended. This week in the media has shown just how far we still have to go and just what a huge step backwards we can take when one man’s actions are attributed to a misunderstood condition. Andreas Lubitz committed a terrible crime whilst having the condition, not because of it. People who think that stigma is no longer a problem have hopefully had a wake up call this week and have seen that it is still rife and that while public perceptions are changing slowly over time, the media drag us all backwards by inappropriately reporting mental illness stories time and time again. For my dissertation for my Psychology Degree I investigated the effects of media reports on mental illness and came across some astounding statistics. Only 1 in 4 stories about mental illness in the media portray positive views and these stories are on average half the length of the negative stories. They also offer no disclaimers when reporting crimes committed by people with mental illnesses leading a huge amount of society to believe that mental illness causes violence. True crime statistics show that mentally ill people are less likely to commit crime than healthy individuals and that they are more likely to be the victim of crime than the perpetrator. I also discovered that reading positive information and facts about mental illness before or after reading a negative and stigmatising article only has a very very small effect on reducing stigmatic beliefs. This means that just reading positive things and hearing from people like me, who despite being depressed for 8 years, has managed not to harm anyone or commit any crimes in the process, is not enough to reduce stigma and that we therefore need to reduce it at source and stop printing such inflammatory and dramatic information that is not true or representative of a widespread set of conditions that affect up to one third of our population.
I’ll leave you with this – Mental illness does not make you dangerous, violent or any more likely to commit a crime. Do not believe what you read in the media and instead read the mental health charity websites where you can find out statistics about prevalence, crime, prognosis etc. The only people that depressed people are a risk to is themselves. No one I’ve ever met with depression has even considered harming anyone else, let alone crashing a plane. This has been A Bad Week to Have Depression but slowly but surely enough people like me will shout loud enough and the media will have to stop being so stigmatic in their approach to reporting news.