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Symposium calls for new approach to mental health in the media

Experienced journalists, health professionals and others discuss public perception of mental illnesses

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This year’s Joseph Howe Symposium at University of King’s College addressed the problems of reporting on mental health on Saturday at the Bell Aliant sponsored event “Time to Talk — Media Youth and Mental Health.”

The symposium featured three sessions on the topics of suicide, youth mental health, and the association between violence and mental illnesses.

Speakers with firsthand experience in journalism and mental illnesses discussed stigma and misunderstanding surrounding mental illnesses, and how the media can help reduce misconceptions and encourage those suffering to seek help.

Globe and Mail health columnist André Picard spoke about the often flawed representation of mental illnesses in the news.

“The media, by its nature, tends to cover the extremes,” Picard said before acknowledging that the vast majority of people with mental illnesses have normal lives and jobs. “But that’s not really a good story.”

“When we tell stories, we have to tell them for a purpose,” Picard said, also noting the media’s influence on public policy. He said that when a journalist writes a story, it’s ideal that a policy maker pays attention to the issue in the article and changes it.

But most news stories concerning mental illnesses involve suicide and violent behavior. Picard said a news story’s purpose is to suggest a change to improve the issue that it presents.

Picard also brought up the importance of using appropriate language when trying to reduce stigma. For example, the term “commit suicide” deems taking one’s own life a crime, when in reality, it is a dismal result of human suffering from severe mental illness.

Glen Canning, father of Rehtaeh Parsons, who died by suicide in 2013 at the age 17, spoke about his daughter’s circumstances.

“She didn’t take her own life. She didn’t,” he said. “She died from depleted ability to get treatment for something as deadly as cancer.”

This comparison of mental illnesses to cancer came up frequently throughout the symposium. Picard called for the media to report on mental illnesses in the same way as physical illnesses, an important step in reducing the stigma and taboo surrounding suicide.

“We say someone died of cancer. We don’t say someone died of suicide,” Canning said. “And we should.”

Canning added that mental illnesses can be treated in the same way as physical illnesses.

“Suicide is a disease,” Canning said, “Suicide is a cancer. Suicide is something that you can get treatment and help for.”

Canning was not alone in his optimism; a handful of other speakers expressed positive attitudes about the media’s future method of covering mental illnesses. Doug Race, vice president of the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta, gave the audience a sense of urgency.

“This segment is called Time to Talk. But now it’s 2015,” Race said. “It’s not time to talk. It’s time for action.”

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