Who, what, where and when: How journalists miss the ‘why’ in mental health stories
By Chelsey Burnside
My dad’s voice is guttural as it slices through the Bluetooth static. “We want to tell you before you see the headlines,” he says.
It was a mid-October morning in 2011 when I got the call. A longtime family friend, Katherine Dufresne (known to us as Kathy Fitzpatrick), had been arrested for the murder of her seven-year-old daughter, Sophie, the little girl she and her husband had adopted from China about five years earlier. It was an apparent altruistic murder-suicide gone wrong—police found a note detailing her plan in the family’s lakeside home in Chelsea, Quebec. Dufresne survived her suicide attempt and was charged with first-degree murder.
Like an earthquake, the news shook the sleepy little town minutes outside of Ottawa where I grew up, shattering the day-to-day calm with a parade of police cars and news vans. The story made the Ottawa Citizen’s front page and national news. The reports detailed the who, the what, and the where, but the “why” remained unanswered. After interviewing bewildered neighbours, most journalists came to a common conclusion. “She must have just snapped.”
“Snapped” is a word regularly attributed to murderers—there’s even a true-crime TV show by the name. But underneath these stories often lies a battle with mental illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, masked in the media by jargon and euphemisms: “lost it,” “crazy,” “psycho,” or “deranged.”
“I hate that stuff,” says André Picard, public health reporter for The Globe and Mail. “The worst thing we can do is imply. It makes people fill in the blanks themselves, and who knows what they’re going to fill in the blanks with.”
Reporting on mental illness in all its complexity is a hard thing to do well. Robert Whitley, an assistant professor at McGill University, was enlisted by the anti-stigma branch of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) to conduct a study on the media’s role in perpetuating stereotypes about mental illnesses. What he found was a series of trends that highlight the outliers, often distorting the reality of mental illness into a haze of violent crimes and vague implications. Forty percent of articles that refer to mental illness do so in a context of crime and violence, while only 15 percent touch on recovery and rehabilitation. In addition, only 16 percent of articles actually quote someone with a mental illness. “They have very silent voices [in the media],” says Whitley. “If you were writing an article about hockey or politics, you’d quote a hockey player or a politician.”
The media doesn’t usually address the “silent sick”: the ones who live every day with treated or untreated disorders. Although people suffering from mental illness are 10 to 15 times more likely to be victims of violence than to be the perpetrator, what we do cover—and what the audience remembers—are the exceptions: The Greyhound killer suffering from untreated schizophrenia, the alleged mental breakdown of the Calgary architect who stabbed his family to death before killing himself, or the suspected multiple personalities of Luka Rocco Magnotta.
While many publications and journalists are getting it right—Whitley names the Toronto Star and The Hamilton Spectator as frontrunners, and in 2007 Picard was named a Champion of Mental Health for his reporting—the MHCC study shows most still have a long way to go. Picard says reporters need to start treating mental illnesses like every other disease, replacing vague language like “snapped” with medical terms. That means challenging the murky details and surface responses that are often presented at press conferences.
“When jargon gets thrown in, your next question has to be, ‘What does that mean?’” says Whitley.
On November 3, 2009, Michael Kimber broke down. He had lost his job and had almost lost his girlfriend, and his anxiety disorder boiled over into crippling bouts of insomnia and machine-gun heart palpitations. After a long struggle and many failed medications, Kimber recovered. Ever since, he has been dedicated to changing the way people see mental illness, launching the Come Out campaign in 2010 to try to snuff out the stigma that prevents almost two-thirds of people suffering from mental illness from getting help.
“We talk about the scariest and the most wonderful,” says Kimber, a journalist and blogger based in Toronto. “I would love it if we told stories that weren’t meant to shock or polarize. I would love it if people were better informed.”
But the if-it-bleeds-it-leads media mantra makes it difficult not to showcase the exceptions, especially when a high-profile crime involves someone who is mentally ill. The newsworthiness of a recovery story would never trump that of a murder story. But Kimber says that people won’t be comfortable talking about mental illness until the conversation becomes less about the extremes and more about what’s in between. He says the media have the power to shape the outcomes of these disorders, giving a face to mental illness and starting a dialogue about rehabilitation and where to get help.
“Go under the surface,” says Whitley. “I think there are a lot of good role models out there, the ones who go the extra mile and phone up mental health experts to tell the full story.”
On January 11, 2012, Katherine Dufresne was found hanging in the shower of the Hull jail where she was detained. She was pronounced dead the next day, leaving my family and many others close to her with questions that will probably never be answered. What we do know is that Dufresne committed suicide after suffering in silence—she was a part of the 57 percent of Canadians with depressive disorders who don’t seek treatment.
So when I heard Michael Kimber tell his story at a Mental Health Commission of Canada symposium in February, his crusade to expunge stigma struck a chord. His last sentences swelled into an angry, rhythmic crescendo — almost beat poetry.
“We need to know that mental illness is shockingly common. Eradicate the idea that makes us feel hollow and broken,” he said. “No one told me about mental illness. It’s up to you to tell everyone.”
This piece was edited in part by Lynn Cunningham