At the Shatter the Stigma event held Tuesday at the Orange County Administration Building, Mayor Teresa Jacobs and a panel of guests talked about the ways society can be more hospitable towards those with mental illnesses. They wanted to do away with the stigma against it contributed to by the media.
Jacobs opened with an emotional story recalling her own brother’s suicide. Her brother, she said, suffered from bipolar disorder and didn’t find out about it until much later in his life.
“If people don’t reach out and get help, they will perish,” she said. “There are very few illnesses that I think are more stigmatized than mental illness.”
Visibly emotional, Jacobs said she had kept the specifics of her brother’s suicide, most notably his mental illness, from most everyone for a year after he died. Now, she wanted to right that mistake and help remove the stigma of mental illness.
The guests included Candice Crawford, president and CEO of the Mental Health Association of Central Florida, Dr. Leonard Branch, the chief psychologist with the Orange County Corrections Department, Mark Joyella, a journalist and mental health advocate, and Prof. Rick Brunson with the University of Central Florida’s Nicholson School of Communication.
For two hours, each took turns talking about the societal wounds that need healing regarding the way we see and look at mental health.
Crawford talked about the danger of forming opinions about mental illness from watching the news and reading articles that stereotype and demonize — something she said many people all too often fall back on. She also criticized Florida’s standing as the worst in the nation for treating mental illness.
“We’re the third-largest state in the nation,” she said, “but 50th on funding mental health.”
She also criticized a common response to tragedies such as mass shootings, in which people blame “mental illness” for the killers’ actions. Crawford said it was an inaccurate conclusion, as those who suffer from mental illness are “10 times more likely to be victims than perpetrators” in crimes.
Joyella spoke of his own battle with mental illness, which he wrote about in 2014. He said for the longest time — even while he was working and winning awards as a successful journalist — he felt frustrated, confused and scared in his personal life, unable to articulate why. He said part of this was the stigma behind mental illness — he never even checked to see if he had a problem.
“I was working as a successful TV person, going around, winning awards,” he said. “I’d go home to an empty home, wondering why I couldn’t form any relationships, wondering why I was so scared of everything all the time.”
He said once he was able to get better and treat his illness, his life improved and he is now married with children. But he still didn’t tell most people he worked with about his illness.
“In the news business, we don’t want to be seen as ‘weak,’” he said. “We’re afraid people will say ‘let’s not send Mark on this, we don’t want him to have a panic attack.’”
Both Joyella and Brunson spoke about the responsibility the media has to make sure they’re not stigmatizing mental illness, and instead are treating the issue with delicacy. They pointed out a number of examples, mostly centered around media stories that unnecessarily point out when a story subject is bipolar, has schizophrenia, or any other mental illness.
Jacobs, addressing the crowd, said after her brother’s death, she had been afraid of the scrutiny and the stigma the reality of his mental illness might bring. Now, she isn’t afraid anymore, she said.
“I was afraid of the media — I was afraid that they would say to me, wow, her brother is an alcoholic, I wonder if she drinks. Her brother has a mental illness, I wonder if she’s OK,” she said. “I was afraid of the stigma. The stigma didn’t affect how I felt about my brother, but it did scare me to death. We talk about the fringe number of people who might do something dangerous — I’m interested in the people living less than the best lives they could.”