Stigma Reduction — 30 October 2014

STICKS and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me … It would be great if it was true but unfortunately words can hurt and do a great deal of harm.

We can all think back to a time when someone said something to us that cut us to the bone. We know bullies and terrorists use words to intimidate us, to try and make us feel powerless and frightened. But words can also inspire us, challenge and encourage us. There’s no doubt how we speak and write has great power.

This means we need to think about the words we use and choose them carefully. Often we don’t think before we speak and sometimes the unintended consequences can be very damaging. Gold Coast mental health advocate and blogger, Missy Robinson (missyrobinson.com.au), is one Queenslander who is passionate about getting more people to understand the facts of mental illness and to reduce stigma and misunderstanding.

“Trigger words like ‘psycho’ and ‘schizo’ can add to the myths about people with mental illness being violent, when we know that people with a mental illness are much more likely to be a victim of violence themselves,” she says.

Missy, who has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, says the media plays a crucial role in educating and raising awareness in mental health issues. She points out the distress caused by the misuse of words or derogatory remarks can affect a person’s ability to recover as much as the actual symptoms themselves.

“I’ve been bullied and verbally abused because people are still ignorant about mental illness, even though up to half of all Australians will be affected by a mental illness during their life.”

Stigma against people with a mental illness helps no one. It can be the biggest barrier to a person seeking help early on or stop a family from seeking help when one of their loved ones first becomes unwell. Getting early help is critical. Late help is always expensive help and has far more negative impacts on the individual, families and the wider community.

Stigma can take many forms – from cruel “jokes”, through to the inaccurate depiction of people with mental illness in the media.

Research by SANE Australia, the national mental health charity, has found the majority of people living with a mental illness regard improved media reporting as the most effective way of reducing stigma.

Importantly, Australia is recognised internationally as having the best guidelines in the world for reporting on suicide and mental illness. As someone who has lived and worked in several countries, I can say that when it comes to mental health, Australian journalists are more responsible than journalists in any other country. It’s essential that we keep improving on our high standards because we have a long way to go in eliminating stigma.

People concerned about stigma in the media can access the SANE StigmaWatch program (sane.org/stigmawatch) where we will follow up directly with journalists, editors and newsrooms.

Established more than 28 years ago, SANE Australia works to help all Australians affected by mental illness to lead a better life.

For more information on the National Guidelines visit: mindframe-media.info

Jack Heath is the CEO of SANE Australia

This article first appeared on ‘Courier Mail’ on 30 October 2014.

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