These developments would have been impossible without “normalizing” mental illness in day-to-day conversation, according to NAMI’s Fitzpatrick. He and Bell focused on the importance of early identification of at-risk individuals and early intervention in their care. That mirrors similar language in the White House’s rhetoric on the role of better, earlier mental healthcare in violence prevention (though, as Young’s HuffPost story emphasizes, an exclusive emphasis on mental illness is “unlikely to achieve a significant reduction in gun violence”). And it’s echoed in the language of every iteration of mental health parity legislation debated and enacted by Congress. In many cases, responsible media coverage has helped to accelerate the pace of “normalization”—a dynamic that echoes public discussion of other medical concerns.
Early identification. Early intervention. Sound familiar? Those are precisely the words used by advocates and researchers—and picked up by the media—to destigmatize cancer and AIDS. (For some of you younger folks, it’s true—people thought you could “catch” cancer and it was rarely discussed in public.) Just look at the effects of that normalization during the past 30 years: billions in public funding poured into research, education, and treatment; sophisticated legislation protecting cancer patients and their families; empathetic media coverage that is open to the insights of advocates and researchers.
There’s a clear path that will allow the media to continue to do the same for mental illness. Like Michel Martin, choose reasonable people to interview about relevant topics, such as the relationship between mental health and gun violence—which we may soon be learning more about, after the Obama administration’s directive to lift the ban on CDC-sponsored gun violence research. Find success stories of treatments and services that work instead of sensationalizing an isolated case or event. There’s a mountain of peer-reviewed research out there; learn how to use it accurately. Be judicious in covering the ever-growing supply of personal narratives. Check out some of the great work done by Carter Center’s Mental Health Journalism Fellows. And for goodness’s sake, quit using the word “schizophrenia” unless you’re talking about the actual disease. That’s just being lazy.