Monday, January 10, 2011

The media and "mental illness": Too quick to judge

I really liked this piece by clinical psychologist Vaughan Bell about how the term "mental illness" is too quickly assigned as a reason for violence of the scale that happened in Tucson Saturday morning when six were killed and 14 others injured when a man tried to kill U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Here are some great points in Bell's piece:

The mere mention of "mental illness" is explanation enough. This presumed link between psychiatric disorders and violence has become so entrenched in the public consciousness that the entire weight of the medical evidence is unable to shift it. Severe mental illness, on its own, is not an explanation for violence, but don't expect to hear that from the media in the coming weeks.

Seena Fazel is an Oxford University psychiatrist who has led the most extensive scientific studies to date of the links between violence and two of the most serious psychiatric diagnoses—schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, either of which can lead to delusions, hallucinations, or some other loss of contact with reality. ... they can say with confidence that psychiatric diagnoses tell us next to nothing about someone's propensity or motive for violence.

A 2009 analysis of nearly 20,000 individuals concluded that increased risk of violence was associated with drug and alcohol problems, regardless of whether the person had schizophrenia. ... In other words, it's likely that some of the people in your local bar are at greater risk of committing murder than your average person with mental illness.

I think that the reporters and the commentariat default to "mental illness" or "disturbed" or other variations and cease digging deeper or fail to contextualize more completely (particularly the TV commentariat) for several reasons:

1. We want answers quickly. And since the vast majority of us could not comprehend how/why someone does this our individual and collective failure to understand a possible motive means that the assailant was "crazy."

2. Not only do we want answers, but we also want to assign responsibility/blame. And to satisfy the always-hungry-news-cycle, it's usually ascribed as blame.

3. The over-abundance of commentators leads to an unwinnable contest to outscoop and differentiate a network's or website's coverage. Sadly, while Twitter was an awesome resource for maintaining up-t0-the-second coverage, it has opened more windows into the haphazardness of newsgathering (see NPR's early reports that Giffords had died).

So ultimately, it's easy just to say that the shooter was "crazy," even before a single thing is known about the shooter, because that's at least a starting point for your editor/producer and your audience.

I'll admit, too, that when I was a reporter and I had to cover a high school who murdered his mother, I automatically thought that the kid was "crazy" to do something like that. And that's not to say he wasn't disturbed, just that I wasn't thinking clinically, but rather pop-psychologically. And the really sad thing is that my completely unclinical and un-medically substantiated pop-psych diagnosis only helped to further stigmatize the idea of mental illness in a broader sense. I was that "what's easiest to use" media member.

I know Ron Artest got made fun of after on Twitter for thanking his psychiatrist after winning the NBA title with the Lakers last year, but his willingness to acknowledge receiving treatment was a big moment. And his subsequent raffling of his championship ring to raise money for teens who need emotional therapy is one of the most under-appreciated stories of the last year in my eyes.

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