On January 8, 2011, Jared Lee Loughner opened fire at a Tucson political rally, leaving six people dead and fourteen others, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, seriously injured. In the days following the shooting, it became evident that Loughner suffered from a serious mental disorder that had never been formally diagnosed or treated, and that became the primary focus of media reports. Many articles presented sensationalized portrayals of his mental illness: “Psycho killer Jared Lee Loughner’s eyes look ‘dead—he’s pure evil,’” reported a New York Post article describing the incident.
Violent incidents like the ones in Tucson, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, and Columbine have raised a series of questions, including tightening (or loosening) gun control, addressing the failure of public systems to identify suspects, and requiring mandatory treatment for those with mental illnesses. In the wake of the Tucson shooting, mental health advocates framed the events as a failure of the mental health system to identify and provide treatment to Loughner, even though he never was engaged with the public system. The Congressional Mental Health Caucus went further to call for hearings on the state of U.S. mental health care. A serious analysis of these arguments and mandates, however, might show that at the crux is the issue of how best to protect “us” from the collective “them” in the face of the unpredictability of life.
Washington Post journalist and former Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism Shankar Vedantam, in his timely book The Hidden Brain, suggests that it is basic human behavior, when confronted with fear and the unknown, to jump to mental shortcuts that build a framework for understanding the stimulus of the fear, even if the shortcuts may not be logical. Such mental shortcuts, intended to “protect” one from future unpredictable events, can play a key role in building and further perpetuating stereotypes. These stereotypes are often at the heart of stigma and the resulting discrimination associated with the targeted groups.
The media can play a powerful role in shaping public response either by perpetuating stereotypes and supporting the mental shortcuts or by providing accurate information and context about events that shape attitudes and beliefs about groups in question. In the case of Tucson, articles countering the initial sensational reports presented evidence documenting that people with schizophrenia rarely commit violent acts, and, as in the case of Jared Loughner, violence among persons with schizophrenia is largely seen among those who also abuse alcohol and illegal substances. The deeper and more interesting questions not being asked are, What protective factors are in place so that the vast majority of people with serious mental illnesses do not commit these crimes? What role do we as a community play in this, and how can we build on these successes?
Journalists know that facts are not enough to touch the hearts and minds of readers. At its core, journalism is about telling stories; told correctly, these narratives can replace stereotypes about mental disorders with an understanding of actual people with those conditions. In academia, we can learn from journalists about how to supplement facts and figures with stories about real people. We can also help journalists to make sure that these facts form a foundation for good journalism about mental health.
Through The Carter Center, Emory University is at the forefront in addressing the role the media might play in reducing the stigma around mental illnesses, and through reporting, identifying the most powerful and effective ways of mitigating the stereotypes that have surrounded people with mental illnesses for centuries.
The Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism were formed fourteen years ago in an effort to build a cadre of professional journalists who report accurately and sensitively about mental illnesses in a balanced way. The yearlong fellowships focus on proposed projects by the awarded journalists that revolutionize the ways mental illnesses are portrayed in the media. Hundreds of articles have been published, hours of radio air time broadcast, five books published, and six documentary films produced as a direct result of the work of Rosalynn Carter Fellows. These fellows seek to bridge the divide between research and journalism—and between researchers and journalists.
With almost 120 journalists having received awards throughout the program’s history, Emory and The Carter Center are now working with colleagues to measure mental illness stigma and evaluate the best methods for combating it.
To promote more widespread treatment and reduce stigma, advocates have increasingly emphasized the neurobiological roots of mental disorders. During the 1990s, the growth of neuroscience helped undergird these biologically based approaches and transform the nature of mental health service delivery in the United States. During that era, the number of Americans in mental health treatment rose from 30.3 to 56.5 million, with more than a fifth of Americans receiving some sort of mental health care by the 2003.
This medical model has proven to be a powerful tool not only for increasing treatment rates but also for moving mental health into the mainstream of health policy. There is evidence, however, that while the biological model may help make certain forms of treatment more acceptable, it leaves other aspects of stigma unaddressed. In a study published this year in the American Journal of Psychiatry, authors used two national surveys to compare Americans’ attitudes towards mental illnesses between 1996 and 2006. The study found that during that decade, the public increasingly saw mental disorders as caused by neurobiological mechanisms and believed that treatment for those conditions was appropriate. But they found few changes in the proportion of respondents who would be willing to have someone with a mental disorder as a friend, coworker, or neighbor.
There still is a great deal of work to be done in stigma reduction and improving the reporting of mental illnesses. To be certain, Emory University and The Carter Center will remain at the forefront. In one of the most powerful pieces responding to the Tucson shootings, Andrea Ball, a 2006-07 Carter Center journalism fellow, “came out” for the first time to her readers as having bipolar disorder. In a personal description of her own experience living with a mental illness, she wrote, “I’m not doing this to garner sympathy or kudos, I’m doing it to add to the chorus of voices out there saying that people with mental illness can live healthy, productive lives. And the fact is, the vast majority of us are not out to kill you.” In fact, what most people dealing with mental illnesses want is what we all want—a full and rich life filled with friends, family, work, and meaning.