Mental Health in America: A Report Card (cont.)

Often one of the best ways to do that is to listen to those who care about you, close family members, but also to perhaps see your family doctor. It may be explainable by other kinds of health conditions, but it may not be. And if not, hopefully that person can help you unravel what's going on and get you into the right treatments that you may need.

It is a similar description for family members. When you observe those kinds of changes in your family members, I think the first order of intervention is to mention that to them, that you have observed this change and that you're concerned about it. And if you're concerned enough about it, you suggest that they see somebody about it and maybe even offer to accompany them when they take care of it.

MEMBER QUESTION:
What can each of us do in our daily lives to help combat the stigma? It seems such a private matter.

BORNEMANN:
Early studies of stigma suggest that it starts at a very early point in our life as we begin to learn language and watch the behavior of adults. What we have learned in the last 20 years, and much of it learned from those people who experience mental illnesses, is that language is important. It's important for all of us to not engage in frivolous use of potentially hurtful terms. Terms like "crazy" can be very hurtful to people who are experiencing a mental illness, and may further enhance their concerns about how other people are going to perceive them as a result of their illness.

Stigma comes from often ignorance, sometimes fear and other kinds of conditions that can be fixed with education and with reaching out and talking with people who have these kinds of conditions.

There are a number of wonderful organizations out there for people with mental illnesses, for family members, and for others who care about these issues, such as the National Mental Health Association, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, and a number of other organizations that are oriented towards assisting people in learning more about illnesses and how to manage them effectively.

It is both an issue of education and intervening when you see these misuses of terms and pejorative language to describe people who are experiencing a health condition.

"We have found striking examples of horrible reporting, inaccurate reporting, the use of inflammatory language in reporting, blazing headlines over people with mental illness committing a crime. These kinds of misuses of the public press contribute immensely to public perceptions of people with mental disorders."

MEMBER QUESTION:
What do you think of consumer-run organizations like we have here in Kansas?

BORNEMANN:
I think that they are one of the more important innovations that we have had in the last couple of decades. The appearance of active consumer-run organizations has been a real major addition to the mental health community. There can be no stronger voice about mental illness than those who experience one. I think that they have contributed enormously towards making services more meaningful, more appropriate and more sensitive to the wide range of needs that persons with mental illnesses have. For example, we no longer are thinking of people with mental illnesses as a diagnosis, as a schizophrenic -- they are a person struggling with schizophrenia -- they are a person first. Consumers have taught us that over these many years. Their contribution has been enormous and continues to be enormous.

MEMBER QUESTION:
In regards to your journalism fellowship program, how do you think journalists can reduce stigma? Why journalists?

BORNEMANN:
Most of us get our information in one form or another from the media. We have found striking examples of horrible reporting, inaccurate reporting, the use of inflammatory language in reporting, blazing headlines over people with mental illness committing a crime. These kinds of misuses of the public press contribute immensely to public perceptions of people with mental disorders. For example, a widely held source of stigma that many people hold is that people with mental illnesses are a danger. The evidence simply does not support that in the broadest terms. There are some conditions that may involve somewhat more incidences of violence but they are very few, very limited and the vast majority of people who experience a mental illness are not dangerous to anyone. Yet if you would look at some of the press reporting, you would tend to think that virtually anybody with a mental illness may potentially be irrational or dangerous and that's simply not true.

Our program is designed to assist journalists in writing accurately and to understand better how their use of language can be very important in uncovering these myths and these misstatements about mental disorders and the people who experience them. So far, our work suggests that they can be highly effective spokespersons in explaining the experiences of mental illness and particularly from the voices of those who actually have those illnesses.

MODERATOR:
Television, newspapers and other media do seem to reinforce the misconceptions and stereotypes of mental illness. Have you seen improvement as more people in the entertainment industry have become educated in the reality of mental illness -- or do we still have a long way to go?

BORNEMANN:
I think we have a ways to go, but I think there have been significant improvements. There are a number of people in the media now who regularly check in with organizations like ours to ask about the best way to handle a certain situation. There are script writers now who have become more careful in how they portray illnesses in dramatic roles. These are really terrific advances. Some colleagues at George Washington University have been working on it in the entertainment media, and we have been working on it in the news media. I think there has been a great improvement. But yes, we do have a long way to go.



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