When Writing About Mental Health, Approach the Topic With an Open Mind

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TEAM Up asks journalists and entertainment writers for the inside scoop on their powerful and responsibly told stories of people dealing with mental health issues.

By Georgia Perry

I decided to write "Busting the Mental Illness Myths” for Santa Cruz Weekly after two Santa Cruz, Calif., police detectives were shot and killed in February 2013. The alleged gunman, Jeremy Goulet, was killed during a gunfight with police; while Goulet had never received a formal diagnosis of mental health issues, rumors quickly spread that he was “off his meds” and “needed to be locked up in a mental ward."

At best, these statements seemed shockingly simplistic; at worst, it appeared that those with mental health challenges had wrongly become a scapegoat for public safety issues. This was the first time in the city’s history that police officers had been killed in the line of duty, and the entire community was devastated. When I wrote my article I had two goals in mind: to give readers a more nuanced look at those with mental health challenges and to affect how they viewed this topic.

I had been interested in the issue for a while. Several months previously, I had attended a forum where the head of the local National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Carol Williamson, spoke about misconceptions around mental illness. That led to a conversation with my editor about a possible feature story on mental health. After the shootings, we both felt that the time was right.

When I spoke with her for my story, Williamson said she began working for NAMI after her son, a young man with bipolar disorder, took his own life. I was amazed at her openness, and quickly learned that most everyone who has experienced mental health challenges or is close to someone who has faced such difficulties has an equally compelling story.

Through Williamson, I met Sarah Leonard, the director of the local Mental Health Client Action Network. Leonard ran away from home when she was a teenager, and over the years she has been diagnosed with several mental health challenges. I told her that I was writing about mental health resources in the area and some of the misconceptions that the community has about mental health. I met her and a few of her colleagues at a local restaurant, where over eggs and coffee we talked about their mental health challenges. They were a little shy and skeptical of me at first, with good reason: It can be frightening to talk to someone who is writing about you and might represent your story in an inaccurate or sensational way.

While I don’t usually talk about myself during interviews, in this case I shared a relevant experience from my past to help make the group more comfortable. After I graduated from college I had what is called a "major depressive episode": For the better part of a year, I broke down in uncontrollable sobbing fits several times a day, slept well into the afternoon, and generally felt lost and hopeless. Eventually, I got help from some good therapists, and I took an antidepressant for a couple of years. Still, the experience was terrifying. I was convinced that I would have to give up all of my hopes and dreams and live in a mental health facility, making treatment my priority.

After I told my story, the group opened up. Leonard said she refuses to let her diagnoses define her. "I’m a diagnosed schizophrenic. I'm also bipolar, OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] and other things," she said. "Anyway, the fact is I’m a homeowner. I work two jobs. I'm not scary."

Others talked about the different types of treatment they have received to deal with their challenges. Some, with the help of an advocate, were linked to helpful county services. Others have seen a physician and now take medication. Many have found comfort in talking to others with similar issues. The Mental Health Client Action Network offers classes, counseling and opportunities to share with others.

My advice for anyone writing about mental health is to approach the topic with an open mind. I like to think that most journalists are earnest in their reporting and treat their subjects with respect, but I suspect there some who make jokes about people being "off their meds" and think that those with mental health challenges are “weird” or not "normal." I urge every journalist to refrain from judgment when reporting on these issues; you’ll get better stories, and your readers or viewers will get a clearer—and more compassionate—understanding of the world.