Saturday, December 12, 2009

Research shows schizophrenia most stigmatised

A December 10th media release from SANE Australia:
New research by SANE Australia finds that schizophrenia is the most stigmatised mental illness.

An analysis of complaints made by the public to SANE’s StigmaWatch program about media reporting of mental illness has found that nearly 1 in 4 relate to schizophrenia. By comparison, only 1 in 50 complaints are about the irresponsible media reporting of depression.

‘We are beginning to see the positive impact of depression awareness campaigns in the media, which is very encouraging. Unfortunately, schizophrenia continues to be one of the most misrepresented and misunderstood illnesses in the community,’ says SANE Australia Executive Director Barbara Hocking.

The report, SANE Research Bulletin 10: Stigma, the media and mental illness, found that 23 per cent of the complaints made about schizophrenia involved sensationalised media reporting. Many of these complaints related to media reports that perpetuate violent or dangerous stereotypes, or incite community fear about the illness.

The number of media reports about schizophrenia that emphasise violence or threatening behaviour misrepresent the actual statistics: one in one hundred people will experience schizophrenia but the lifetime risk of someone with schizophrenia seriously harming or killing another person is calculated to be just .005%.

‘It is certainly alarming that many media representations of schizophrenia are sensationalised, suggesting the risk is far greater than in reality,’ Ms Hocking said. ‘Such irresponsible media reporting causes unnecessary distress to the majority of people with schizophrenia who lead peaceful lives, having a negative effect on how they feel about themselves and how well they are accepted by others.

‘SANE would like to see more stories about the real, every day experience of living with schizophrenia and less sensationalised reporting positioning those affected as violent or incompetent outcasts.’

Encouragingly, there has been a significant increase in responsible and accurate media reporting of depression, with nearly 1 in 3 nominations for positive media coverage focussing on the illness. According to Ms Hocking, the ‘coming out’ of many high profile figures experiencing depression has had a large role to play in community understanding and acceptance of the illness.

‘The combination of awareness campaigns and responsible media reporting of depression has encouraged people to start talking, seek help and feel less excluded.’ Ms Hocking said.

‘SANE encourages the media to extend responsible reporting to all mental illnesses; the sad reality for people living with schizophrenia is that the stigma they experience can be just as distressing as the symptoms themselves. Media have a major role to play in helping to improve this situation so that any person with a mental illness feels understood and accepted by the community.’

Kylie’s story

‘I was diagnosed with schizophrenia a decade ago and in my search to understand my new illness, the media offered me a skewed vantage point where it appeared schizophrenia was simply a licence for bad behaviour. Now, on the inside looking out, I recognise what an inaccurate portrayal this is, the exception rather than the rule. Like many living with schizophrenia, I was a victim of violence and abuse rather than the perpetrator.

There are so many people like me out there succeeding, living, working, raising families and contributing. Stigma stops these same people from putting their hand up to say they are living meaningful, purposeful lives. This is to the detriment of those newly diagnosed with schizophrenia seeking hope for recovery and society at large. The media’s power to do good becomes evident when we see community attitudes towards depression improve through proper reporting and education.’

Kylie Griffin was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 28. Kylie is a mother of two and works as a client support worker in mental health and lives in West Wodonga.

Cameron’s story

‘Much of the pain that I suffered from schizophrenia resulted not from the illness itself, but from the fear that I felt once I was diagnosed. I was afraid to tell people what I was dealing with because I was scared of being painted with the same brush as those I saw in the media. It was this fear of being outcast, of being labelled, and of being seen as a psychopath, that stopped me from seeking the help that I needed.

The media plays a pivotal role in improving the lives of those suffering from a mental illness, and hold the key to changing community attitudes. If the media will take the initiative and tell the real stories, present the real people, and show the community that people living with mental illness are just like everyone else, then the change we seek is not far away.’

Cameron was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 24. He is a PhD academic at Melbourne University and runs his own website and Foundation for young people affected by mental illness -

Jo’s story

‘As a carer, I get hurt when I see remarks that label people who are mentally ill with names such as 'fruitcake', 'nutter' or 'psycho.' Don't they realise that this is my son they are talking about? There are times when carers feel forced to lie to avoid facing the possibility of demeaning reactions or remarks. This is degrading, especially when as a general rule in life, you make it a point not to lie. As if it's not bad enough for someone to have a mental illness, to be punished for it by being the victim of stigmatising comments is like kicking a man when he's down.

I believe editors and producers have a moral responsibility to avoid cruel discriminatory words. They hold the power to influence children as well as adults. It would be great if the media made conscious decisions to use their power to promote compassion, understanding and education about mental illness. This would help to eliminate fear which, along with ignorance, is one of the primary causes of stigma.’

Jo Buchanan is a published author and mother of three living in Melbourne. Her son Miles has been living with bipolar disorder for 20 years.

SANE’s StigmaWatch program monitors the Australian media to ensure accurate and respectful representation of mental illness. Complaints are submitted by community members concerned about media reports which stigmatise mental illness or promote self-harm and suicide. The program also provides positive feedback to the media about accurate and responsible portrayals of mental illness, based on nominations from the public.

Note to editors

SANE media contact

Briony Walker
03 9682 5933
0414 427 291

All photographs courtesy of SANE Australia.

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