By Jenny Westberg
In our continuing work to end discrimination against people with mental illness and addiction, the Mental Health Association of Portland takes on a wide range of tasks, from feature films to public forums. But whichever pot we’re stirring, all our projects further our mission, “to help persons with a diagnosis of mental illness or addiction speak up and speak out – and to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.”
There’s another element that seems to find its way into almost everything we do: language, particularly the written word.
Why this focus? The answer’s right there in the title of the Media Guide we wrote for journalists. Language matters.
Whenever a group of persons begin to assert their civil rights, their first task is replacing the language of oppression with words of identity and acceptance. The media have a key role in this transformation. When journalists give preference to terms of respect, and use them consistently in newspapers and TV broadcasts, the average person starts using them too.
Most journalists today are conscientious about their language for race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, and most disabilities. But even to many disability rights groups, psychiatric disabilities aren’t on the radar. Meanwhile, the average person is so steeped in prejudice that when we object to demeaning slang like “psycho” or “loony-tunes,” we hear it’s no big deal; everyone says these things; and, of course, we didn’t get the joke. That’s where they’re correct: It’s no joke.
Our Media Guide is just two pages long, but it contains some of the most urgently needed changes we’d like journalists to make (don’t call us “the mentally ill”; never use biased slang like “psycho”). We want to get our guide into as many journalists’ hands as possible.
So we’re very pleased to announce that MHAP’s Media Guide is now linked on the website of the National Center on Disability and Journalism. Also, MHAP itself now appears on a different page of the site.
The NCDJ is based at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Assistant Dean Kristin Gilger oversees the organization. It is a respected source of information for writers throughout the U.S., providing a reporter tip sheet, source list and other resources for journalists seeking to improve their coverage of people with disabilities.
We believe the media can be important partners in establishing a discourse of respect. Unfortunately, there are still far too many news articles and broadcasts that portray us as murderers, children, or punchlines. Negative media images have a profound effect on how we’re perceived, which leads directly to how we’re treated.
Otto F. Wahl, Ph.D., who wrote two books on media portrayals of madness, conducted a study in which participants were shown a newspaper article about a “mental patient” who committed violence. They were then asked about their attitudes about mental illness. Compared to a control group who read a neutral article, those who read the first article expressed many more negative stereotypes. They believed people with mental illness were more dangerous, more in need of supervision and restriction, less acceptable as members of the community, and more a source of fear and anxiety.
Please note: That was one article.
People in general are deeply entrenched in their prejudices against persons with mental illness and addiction. When this bias is pointed out, they cling to it tightly, defending their stereotypes with such vigor it seems almost desperate.
In fact, the desperation may be real. Sander Gilman, in Disease and Representation, explains that people may have a need to understand madness as something alien, something not-them, lest they be forced to confront the madness within themselves. Gilman writes: “Society, which defines itself as sane, must be able to localize and confine the mad, if only visually, in order to create a separation” between the sane and the insane, between us and them.
In a society committed to misinformation and irrational fear, we need allies – and we’d like to thank the ones at the NCDJ. We’ll continue to spread the word about our Media Guide. If you haven’t already, download a copy, read it, and share it.
Link to Media Guide on NCDJ: http://ncdj.org/resources/
List of disability organizations on NCDJ: http://ncdj.org/organizations/
Download our Media Guide (2-page PDF) here