Sat, Feb 09, 2013 - Page 9 News List

The media versus the mentally ill

The media focus on the mental health of shooting suspects runs the risk of stigmatizing people with such conditions

By Anthony Jorm

The perception that mentally ill people are dangerous is global. However, it is more prevalent in developing countries than in the developed world. The major exception is the US, where the ready availability of firearms contributes to one of the highest homicide rates — and the highest gun homicide rate — among developed countries.

Given that multiple homicides in the US draw international interest, media reports highlighting a perpetrator’s mental illness or describing insanity pleas inform perceptions of mental illness worldwide. Loughner’s shooting of 19 people in 2011, including US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, attracted global attention, as did the court-ordered evaluation of his mental competency.

Indeed, on the other side of the world, the newspaper The Australian mentioned Giffords 160 times in the six months following the shooting, compared to just one mention in the previous 12 months. Though mass shootings are extremely rare even in the US, the media’s coverage continually reinforces negative perceptions at home and abroad. In this manner, the US may well be exporting the mental illness stigma to the rest of the world.

Similarly, Cho’s history of mental illness was widely discussed. Moreover, his mental-health records were released to the public two years later, reviving the link between his crime — killing 32 people and wounding 17 before committing suicide — and his mental illness.

In this context, US President Barack Obama’s gun control efforts — which include intensifying background-check requirements and increasing financing for mental health programs for young people — hold global significance. While expanding the scope of mental health services is a positive step, with the potential to contribute to the physical safety of US citizens, it is crucial that this link not be allowed to feed the perception that people with mental illnesses are dangerous. Rather, US legislators and media outlets must use their international influence to reduce the stigma experienced by people suffering from mental illnesses worldwide.

Anthony Jorm, a former president of the Australasian Society for Psychiatric Research, leads the Population Mental Health Group at the Melbourne School of Population Health and is chair of the Research Committee of Australian Rotary Health.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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