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Opinion: The reality of mental illness doesn't fit into a sanitised sound bite

Although clearly well-intentioned, the irony is that in order to reduce perceived stigma the media has given us a palatable portrayal of mental illness.

Sinead Fallon

WHEN THE MEDIA highlights mental illness it’s the same story all the time, on the TV or on the radio – an average young man who feels down.

Though it is clearly well-intentioned, the irony is that in order to normalise the disease and to reduce the stigma endured by mentally ill people, the media has given us a sanitised, palatable portrayal of mental illness.

The man portrayed is “just like you and me”, he’s “one of the lads”, but he’s just not himself right now. He has no energy, wants to stay in bed all day, and he loses interest in the things he used to love; he loses interest in life.

He isn’t identifiably mentally ill and still very approachable – not at all like the homeless man talking to himself in the street, or the woman rocking back and forth on the bus. Definitely not “weird”, definitely not “strange”, he is “normal”, just like you.

The man then experiences a series of positive changes. Support is received from family, friends, the GP, or his Irish mammy. Some medication is taken, or alternatively some counselling. The young man “recovers”.

The End.

Such stories are realistic, and this young man is like many across the country. Many people do suffer a one-off, temporary depression, but recover fully and return to their normal day to day life.

For many, it is not temporary  

Many are not so lucky. Their suffering is lifelong, and they must learn to accept their fate and live with their illnesses. They look weird sometimes, act strangely sometimes, and they make you uncomfortable sometimes. They are different.

I do not want to paint a purely pessimistic picture of mental illness. Even with all its difficulties, a good standard of living is possible with the right help and with an adequate support system.

To achieve this, an honest and realistic outlook is essential. Acceptance that they will have this disease for the rest of their lives. Like Crohn’s disease or diabetes, they have a lifelong illness that can be managed but will never go away. There is no magic quick fix. They are not responsible for the illness and will have limited control over it.

The one-size-fits-all presentation of mental illness – in which someone is depressed and gets over it – is dangerous because so many who experience depressive episodes do not return to their lives as they knew them. Their illnesses grow and change over the years. They often receive new diagnoses of bipolar, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, eating disorders, etc.

They continue to suffer periodic episodes of psychosis or depression. They struggle with medication and its side effects. They will also face an understaffed, underfunded, chaotic health service. Their lives never return to how they were before. Relationships are seriously affected. Employment is a serious challenge. Poor physical health is common. The suffering of lifelong mental illness is immense.

Though it waxes and wanes, it never really ends.

The struggle to understand 

Like society in general, the media finds it difficult to accept long-term mental illness and they struggle to understand sufferers. They want to fix them, to find that magic formula that would get them back to normal, but those involved have learned the hard way that there is no getting back to normal. There is just acceptance of this new life as the normal.

Those with life-long mental illness face stigmatisation, discrimination and social exclusion. When they are seen to refuse to present themselves as normal or to recover as others have, that is how society treats them. Such societal attitudes are heavily influenced by politicians, public commentators and the media.

What I would love to see and hear in media portraits of mental illness is not the facile cliché or the banal sound bite, but the whole truth.

 Sinead Fallon is a researcher and writer with interests in mental health, advocacy, childrens rights and social justice. Sinead can be reached on Twitter @sineadhfallon or by email sinead_fallon@yahoo.ie

Opinion: I have a vision – I want to live in a world where depression is understood

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Sinead Fallon

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