A Word on Words in the Media.
Mental-health problems are not at all the topic when it comes to Peter Jackson’s latest film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Mental-health problems are also not the topic of Samantha Hayes’ 3News review of the film that was published online yesterday (4/12/12). Yet, as is often the case, mental-health problems have been brought into the story to describe a bad character. In so doing, media articles like this one inadvertently strengthen the mistaken association between bad and mad that helps fuel stigma and discrimination against people with mental-health problems.
“Computer generated imagery has come a long way since we were first introduced to the schizophrenic, twisted Gollum” (emphasis added), writes Hayes.
This is the only mention of mental-health problems in the entire article. It’s just a small thing, the use of the word schizophrenic to describe Gollum. But in so doing, the author brings all of the stereotypical images of ‘schizophrenics’ to mind and associates them with a character that is essentially one of the baddies in the narrative. This seems to reiterate the myth that people diagnosed with schizophrenia are dangerous. We pity, fear or dislike Gollum at different intervals and he is never ‘one of us’. These small choices of word-use are one of the key processes through which stigma about mental-health problems is maintained.
It is the small things that fly under our radar and end up being accepted as common parlance or ‘just what you say’ that make stigma so insidious. The weather was schizophrenic. The traffic was schizophrenic. These are things people say every day without thinking, so I don’t blame Hayes for her mistake. But it is good to realise the impact of the words we use and once we are aware, to make some changes.
Approximately 1% of the population experiences schizophrenia spectrum conditions. That might not seem like many, but it’s actually more than 10 000 people each year*. We do not refer to these people as ‘schizophrenics’; they are people, not the diagnostic labels they have received. They are brothers, sisters, parents, workers, students, artists. Many have long ago moved on from their experience of schizophrenia symptoms or found ways to live well in their presence. People who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia are not Gollum-like creatures with split personalities who mutter away to themselves in the dark. This is a common misperception and it is unfortunate to see it reiterated in the news media. Stigmatising myths such as these make it more difficult for people with schizophrenia to recover and find inclusive communities.
Relying on stereotypes to describe something is poor form. Instead of schizophrenic, I suggest saying what you really mean and leaving people with mental-health problems out of it. Say pitiful, troubled, scary, chaotic, weird, tormented. In this case, sticking with “twisted” would have done it. People with mental-health problems are not defined in these ways.
At least that is where I stand – what do you think?
Why not visit the original review article yourself and leave a comment encouraging a different choice of words in future?
- Miriam Larsen-Barr
* Public Health Report 3 on Schizophrenia in NZ: Mental Health in NZ from a Public Health Perspective: http://www.moh.govt.nz/moh.nsf/Files/chap18/$file/chap18.pdf
Stigma Watch is one of our new best friends. This magical Like Minds, Like Mine service monitors the media and sends out an email when mental-health problems are the topic.
Anyone can join Stigma Watch and comment on stigmatising media articles. The idea is to inspire Like Minds providers and members of the public from around the country (that’s you!) to voice their opinions and help tackle stigma in the media.
To join Stigma Watch, email Katrina Mathers at the Mental Health Foundation of NZ Katrina@mentalhealth.org.nz