Since 2001 I have been a media volunteer for the Scottish executive’s See Me… campaign against the stigma associated with mental health problems. I have been interviewed about my experiences of mental health problems several times. These included a regional news report on the rise in subscriptions for newer antidepressants and on the Scottish Association for Mental Health’s 2004 report on service users’ experience of psychiatric drugs
It is encouraging that tabloid newspapers and the broadsheets are giving a voice to psychiatric service users. This is a heartening contrast to the still too common – and very misleading – media-influenced association between mental ill health and violence.
Descriptions like “psycho”, “schizo” and “nutter” are still bandied about in a distressingly casual fashion. Clinical psychiatric terms, such as psychotic and schizophrenic, are misused by professional journalists who ought to know better. Thorough research, accurate content and a lack of sensationalism are required in the reporting of other matters. Why not the same expectations when a story involves mental ill health?
I hope no one believes that I may be “a danger to the public” just because of my experiences of psychological distress that someone else may be unable to relate to or empathise with.
If anything, mental illness has led to me being more considerate of others and more understanding of other people’s problems. My experience has taught me humility and respect. The only person I ever physically harmed was myself.
Media reports with psychiatric service users talking about their experiences can provide a more balanced view of mental health problems. They offer an insight into the very human phenomenon of psychiatric illness, providing a face and a voice for issues that are all too often avoided and feared or even mocked because of misunderstanding, which media bias often compounds.
As a media volunteer, I have been able to speak openly in public forums about things I do not often have the chance to discuss in everyday life. I hope being open will help heighten understanding of psychiatric illness and encourage people with little or no knowledge of the subject not to make wrong judgements about psychiatric service users.
Sharing details of my experience may also help others with similar problems feel less isolated and alone. Mental health problems are extremely isolating and it would mean a great deal to know that I have been able to reach out and affect someone positively. It would also be a great achievement to encourage other psychiatric service users to be open without fear of shame, embarrassment or misunderstanding.
Knowing I have the opportunity to make a difference, however small it may be, can only be a positive and life affirming experience. I hope to continue using this opportunity in the future.
Helen Waddell uses mental health services