A headline last month that referred to this winter’s weather as “schizophrenic” received an appropriately chilly response from many readers.

A headline last month that referred to this winter’s weather as “schizophrenic” received an appropriately chilly response from many readers.

By Patricia Graham for the Brunswick News

A headline last month that referred to this winter’s weather as “schizophrenic” received an appropriately chilly response from many readers.

The description was contained in a quote from a source in the story, and then amplified many times over in a headline.

“Calling the winter schizophrenic is offensive to those who understand this serious brain disease,” Stephen VanSlyke, president of the Fredericton chapter of the Schizophrenia Society of New Brunswick, wrote to me in an email.

“People with schizophrenia do not have two personalities. They are not any more aggressive or violent than others. They are not unpredictable or dangerous.”

Diana Ottesen, who with her husband facilitates workshops for friends and family members of individuals living with mental health challenges, suggested the journalists might need some education and sensitivity training. Their use of the word “further contributes to the stigma and marginalization of this already vulnerable sector of our society.”

“Schizophrenia” is a commonly misappropriated word; odds are good that most of us have misused it at one time or another. It is most often used incorrectly to denote “split personality,” but this is a false stereotype that arose because of the literal meaning of the word’s Latin roots.

As Mr. VanSlyke pointed out to me in his email, most people who have schizophrenia “enjoy lives of meaning and purpose contributing to families, vocation and their communities.”

Our understanding of mental illness is changing. This newspaper is among those that have published stories that made a valuable contribution to improved comprehension as well as increased awareness of the damage that can be done when fear, stigma or stereotypes are attached to mental illness.

Change, however, takes time and as journalists we are not yet consistent in avoiding some of the pitfalls of reporting on mental health issues.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), 20 per cent of Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, and most of us will somehow be affected through a family member, friend or colleague.

Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. While risk factors for some disorders vary among segments of the population, mental health challenges occur regardless of race, education, gender, income or age.

We can better determine what we mean by mental illness when we have a decent grasp of what we mean by mental health. I find this CMHA description helpful:

“Mental health means striking a balance in all aspects of one’s life: social, physical, spiritual, economic and mental. At times, the balance may be tipped too much in one direction and one’s footing has to found again. Everyone’s personal balance is unique and the challenge is to stay mentally healthy by keeping the right balance.”

Mental illness runs the gamut from severe psychosis to anxiety disorder. Only a few of those who face mental health challenges will suffer psychosis, yet it is such episodes that often garner the big headlines, feeding a culture of fear around mental illness. Many who take their own lives have been dealing with mental health challenges, yet suicide is still tremendously stigmatized.

Mindset is a resource site created by Canadian journalists for journalists reporting on mental health. I’ve mentioned it before as an excellent source of information and guidance. It includes checklists of tips for journalists for writing about certain issues, including this one:

Don’t reinforce stereotypes (especially in headlines).

I’ve spoken to several journalists involved in the weather story, and I’m reasonably confident they’ll check that box next time.

I’d like to thank all the readers who took the time to contact me about this, or to write letters to the editor, with a special thanks to Rick White.

If you have complaints or concerns about editorial content in this newspaper, you can reach me at ombudsman@brunswicknews.com.

This column was published originally by Brunswick News and reprinted here with Graham’s permission.


Patricia Graham is Ombudswoman for Brunswick News.