Photo: Associated Press

People hide their mental illness because of sloppy reporting like this

Mark Joyella
Mar 30, 2017 · 6 min read

The tweet, from the Daily Mail, caught my attention: “Mentally ill woman” who “tried to run over officers” was due in court for domestic violence during attack. The argument could be made that the Daily Mail, admittedly not a bastion of journalism, was making a rather direct link between “mentally ill” and “attack.”

So, hating myself ever so slightly, I clicked.

Take note of the quotation marks around mentally ill woman.

As a journalist who happens to have a mental illness, I’m hyper-aware of stories that casually link mental illness and violence — a connection that is not supported by things like science or fact. So I was curious to see how the Mail would justify its tweet, which was essentially a mercifully edited version of the paper’s clunky headline: REVEALED: ‘Mentally ill woman’, 20, who ‘tried to ram a police cruiser and run over officers outside Capitol Hill’ was due in court for domestic violence at the same time as the attack and was the subject of a no contact order.

Okay, so let’s take a look at the Mail’s reporting that, we’d assume, would provide some kind of, you know, facts. But guess which words never appear anywhere in the text of the story? Mentally ill. Now, that’s pretty strange given the quotation marks in the headline — and tweet — around the words mentally ill, suggesting someone said that about the woman who’s the subject of the story, and in journalism, we expect to be told whose quote that was. Here — nada.

I checked the AP story at another website, and found the same story, word for word, again without any mention of mental illness. In the Chicago Sun-Times, the headline reads Woman, 20, charged with plowing into Capitol Police cruiser.

So how does a crime story in the Sun-Times become a story about a mentally ill woman carrying out an attack in the Daily Mail? Aside from the headline, there are two references to mental illness in the Mail’s story, one in a bullet point between the headline and the copy, which reads “the 20-year-old’s family said she suffers from mental illness and needs help,” and another in a photo caption, which says “she turned to face them as they escorted her in to the van. Her family said she suffers from mental illness and ‘desperately’ needs help.”

Okay. So the family says she has some kind of mental illness? Who talked to them, exactly, since the AP story published in the Mail under its stigma-reinforcing headline says: “relatives of Everett in Maryland did not respond to telephone messages.”

Maybe the Mail did some reporting — but let’s see your work. Without that, it’s lousy journalism that reinforces stereotypes and falsehoods about mental illness. The reality is that people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of crime, than the perpetrators.

From the University of Washington School of Social Work’s mental health reporting project:

Inaccurate beliefs about mental illness and violence lead to widespread stigma and discrimination:

The discrimination and stigma associated with mental illnesses stem in part, from the link between mental illness and violence in the minds of the general public (DHHS, 1999, Corrigan, et al., 2002).

The effects of stigma and discrimination are profound. The President’s New Freedom Commission onMental Health found that, “Stigma leads others to avoid living, socializing, or working with, renting to, or employing people with mental disorders — especially severe disorders, such as schizophrenia. It leads to low self-esteem, isolation, and hopelessness. It deters the public from seeking and wanting to pay for care. Responding to stigma, people with mental health problems internalize public attitudes and become so embarrassed or ashamed that they often conceal symptoms and fail to seek treatment (New Freedom Commission, 2003).”

But for people who read the Daily Mail, this story provided a booster shot to keep that subtle yet destructive misconception alive and well: “mentally ill…attack.”

Note, again, that the reference to a female maniac is in those mysterious quotation marks.

Hard to believe, but the Mail’s headline was even outdone by The Sun, which screamed CAR RAMPAGE AT THE WHITE HOUSE: Gunshots heard on Capitol Hill ‘after female maniac crashed into police car and tried to run down cops’.

Wow. Now we’ve made her a “maniac,” (a word that really has no journalistic merit) and linked the “attack” to the White House. Why not just go for it, Sun, and call her a terrorist? Or does that confuse things, as we want distinct and separate scary groups: terrorists and violent maniacs?

Again, as with the Daily Mail, the Sun’s story makes absolutely no reference to mental illness that might possibly justify its headline. The closest they come is a passing reference to the woman being described by police as “erratic and aggressive.” The headline uses quotation marks to let us know it’s not the paper or its editors calling her a “female maniac,” but never does it tell us who said that, or even if anyone actually did. (It would seem to be the kind of quote that would make its way into a story, no?)

If it were almost any other group of people, editors would be exceptionally cautious before publishing headlines like these. Are we absolutely sure about this? We’re linking mental illness with the attack. On the White House!

But with mental illness, the thinking — even among journalists who should know better — seems to be hey, it’s what people already think, and it’s a punchy headline, and who’s going to call us on it, anyway — so go for it.

Well, I’m calling you on it, Daily Mail. And you, Sun, and your reporters, Emma Lake and Neal Baker.

You want to link mental illness with a violent attack? Show us your damn sources, and back it the hell up.

NOTE: A local television station in Washington, WRC-TV, talked to the woman’s aunt, who described her niece as having bipolar disorder. “We know that she needs help,” Bonnie Everett told the station. “Unfortunately the judge didn’t see that, and this is the result of her not getting the care that we know she desperately needed,” she said.

That story was published online under the entirely defensible headline: Shots Fired After Woman Nearly Strikes Officer Near US Capitol, with a sub-hed that reads: “This is the result of her not getting the care that we know she desperately needed,” a family member said.

And I’ve got no argument with that.

NOTE 2: Today is World Bipolar Day, a day devoted to educating people about the illness, how it’s diagnosed, and the treatments that are available. It’s also about fighting against the social stigma attached to bipolar, which is illustrated brilliantly in the stories published by the Daily Mail and the Sun, which make it so much harder for people with bipolar to talk about their illness — even to seek treatment — without fearing judgment.

World Bipolar Day is March 30, which was Vincent Van Gogh’s birthday. The artist was posthumously diagnosed with bipolar, and serves as an example of the brilliance and art that people with bipolar often bring to the world, not acts of crime or terror.

“Through international collaboration, the goal of WBD is to bring the world population information about bipolar conditions that will educate and improve sensitivity towards the condition,” explains the International Bipolar Foundation. Newspaper editors: check it out. Learn something.

Bear in Mind

News, commentary, and video about stigma and mental illness.

Mark Joyella

Written by

Maddie and Sophie’s Dad. Tiffanie’s Husband. Writer/Reporter, @IBM. Contributor, @Forbes. MFA Candidate, @UGAGrady. Mental Health Ambassador, @BC2M. @ArsenalFC

Bear in Mind

News, commentary, and video about stigma and mental illness.

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