Petiton to Google Inc. for stronger effort to connect users to mental health resources

Sign the following petition HERE.

Active Minds at Ithaca College is petitioning Google Inc. for a greater and more prominent inclusion of mental health resources upon searching potentially harmful terms.  There are three main components to our appeal, all of which we believe are essential in protecting the mental health of Google’s vast body of users.

1. On Tumblr.com, a microblogging platform and social networking website, when users search for potentially harmful terms such as “suicide,” and “pro-ana,” the screen fades, still displaying search results behind it, and a dialog box emerges offering various mental health resources available for those who may be interested or in need.  The window reads, “If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, self harm issues, or suicidal thoughts, please visit our Counseling & Prevention Resources page for a list of services that may be able to help.”  It then requires the user to select “dismiss” before continuing to their results.  This system offers people potentially in need resources that could be beneficial to them or even save their life, while still maintaining a level of transparency over search results for lack of censorship.   While we understand the Google already provides a hotline for the “suicide” search, we believe the alternate system described would be most beneficial.  We would like Google Inc. to implement this, or a system resembling it, to their search results for the benefit of its users.

2. The search result window, along with “dismiss,” includes a “Tell me more” option.

If you choose the latter, you are brought to a page of Counseling and Prevention Resources.  This is a relatively expansive list of free and confidential resources organized by country.  This is a page we would like to see Google incorporate, and have available to anyone who might be struggling with various mental health issues.

3. Google Inc. will need a list of potentially triggering search terms to implement the prior two suggestions.  The following is a list of these search terms, and we encourage readers to include their own in the comment section (click “more” to view list; general trigger warning):

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“But You Don’t Look Crazy…”

Those are actual words that have been said to me on numerous occasions, usually, of course, upon coming out about my diagnosis. I know that it’s also been said to friends of mine in the community of persons with mental health diagnoses, and that the sentiment can take any number of forms: “You’ve always seemed so normal,” “You don’t seem like the crazy people I’ve seen on TV,” and “You don’t look like you belong here,” said to me by a fellow patient during one of my three stays in a hospital psych unit.

It’s meant, almost always, as a compliment. The speaker feels that having a mental illness as an ugly stain upon a person’s appearance, and says this as an assertion that the listener is without such a vestige.

It’s sometimes also meant, on some level, as a dismissal. “Forget what the doctor says,” they had might as well be saying. “In fact, forget what the medical community has spent decades finding out.” And, most importantly, “Forget everything you’ve been through for months, maybe years, maybe decades. You don’t look like what I think a crazy person looks like, therefore you are not one.” It’s about as trivializing as you can get, despite the good intentions behind it.

Stereotypes about gender and mental health can, and often do, interact.

There exists, obviously, and as I’ve said before, a gap between our cultural perceptions of what a person with mental illness is “supposed to” look like and act like, and how we actually do. We’re a diverse and vast community: mental illness can affect anyone, and the people living with it are our friends, neighbors, and classmates, colleagues, and family. But the media portrayals of people with mental illness that have surrounded us our whole lives have most people with no other source of information thinking otherwise.
People with mental illness are depicted as inept, childish, emotionally unreachable, and untrustworthy,

Seinfeld character “Crazy” Joe Davola is a classic example of a character based on these stereotypes.

among other undesirable qualities, often exploited for comic effect. In the media, people with mental illness are most often male, and are physically distinctive: they’re either very tall or very short, they’re unkempt and unshaven, are disheveled and have poor hygiene, have bad haircuts, dress poorly, have lopsided smiles, and, perhaps most commonly, have what have come to be known as “crazy eyes.”

There are some theories as to why “the mentally ill” have, as a group, become homogenized by the media, as Dr. Otto Wahl describes in his outstanding book, Media Madness. One possibility is that the stereotypes exist as a way of separating “Us” from “Them:” if we can see ourselves as physically (and thus, in our superficial world, fundamentally) different from people with mental illness, then we need not fear that we’re “one of them.” A second theory is that, because mental illness is not nearly so concrete as other characteristics, or even physical illness, it can’t easily be portrayed visually. That changes, though, if easily recognizable visual associations are made with mental illness.

The initial plan to cast actual patients in the Oregon State Hospital in supporting roles in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were scratched because they did not meet the director’s expectations of what people in a psych unit should look like.

Whether or not media makers intend to perpetually assign undesirable associations with people living with mental illness, that’s exactly what they do when they rely on stereotyped portrayals. Not only that, but they’re limiting themselves as storytellers by choose to recycle stock characters rather than developing the more nuanced and accurate characters we’ve seen on shows like Degrassi: The Next Generation and Homeland in recent years. They also make it difficult for people who do have mental illness but don’t fit the stereotypes to have their difficulties be taken seriously by their peers.

The attitude that stereotypes are just stereotypes and don’t do any harm, especially when they’re so obviously untrue, is the kind of ignorance that the media are in a very powerful position to reduce, or even end. Not only would it be a beneficial opportunity for them to take, but it’s also a part of their duty as a powerful international institution.

Our Mental Health Conversation: Post Newtown

Tragedies like the shooting in Newtown tend to lead to discussion of mental health. While it seems appropriate that the silence be broken on this issue, it concerns me that this is often the only context in which the conversation is happening.

Mental healthcare needs to be readily available and accessible to everyone, and that need is clearly not being met. That’s a crucial element of the conversation, and probably the part that comes up the most. What’s being lost, though, is that ‘everyone’ means everyone. It’s not for the “crazy” few, or the “dangerous” Other. It makes me cringe to violence and mental illness treated as synonymous. I think that a willingness to acknowledge that mental health affects all of us, that we’re all human and flawed and need help, is missing from the conversation.

Hindsight is 20/20, and so the media are quick to comment on the warning signs Lanza displayed in the time leading up to the incident. We don’t know much about Lanza’s mental health history, and while I’m not comfortable with any kind of specific speculation, it’s obvious that he wasn’t well. Nobody could have definitively known far ahead of time what he was planning to do, but it should have been apparent years ago that he needed help. I don’t know what attempts, if any, to seek help for Adam were made, or why they did not succeed, but it’s likely that some combination of the typical attitudes toward treatment: that it’s ineffective/unnecessary, that it’s “for someone else, not me/my child/my friend/people in a nice town like this” was at play, as well as the fact that even people who want treatment often go through a slow and frustrating process to get it.

The conversation about mental health needs to address that mental healthcare and support are necessary for reasons that extend miles beyond preventing horrific incidents like this one. Yes, seeing an end to mass shootings is a potential best-case outcome to improving the availability of, and public willingness to accept, mental healthcare. But we can’t simplify the Newtown shooting and similar events to matters of mental illness (and vice versa – we can’t equate mental illness with Lanza’s acts), and to do so only further distorts our cultural associations with mental health, perpetuating those harmful attitudes.

This is obviously an extremely complex issue, and what I’ve written here is just an introductory look at an idea about which I intend to write much more. The bottom lines are that:

1. The mental healthcare system is not equipped to meet demand. We cannot allow anyone’s ability to live a fulfilled and productive life slip through the cracks.

2. Changing the general cultural perception of mental health is a major obstacle in achieving progress in mental health treatment. We as individuals need to honestly and fully address the way we see and talk about mental health: what stereotypes are we aware of? To what degree do we believe them? Is this affecting the way we see and treat others? Does it affect the way I see and react to my own struggles? Why is this harmful? It is everyone’s responsibility to work toward a better personal understanding of mental health.

Introduction

Despite the progress that’s been in understanding mental health in all of its aspects, the fact remains that the issue is extremely stigmatized. Mental health and illness affect everyone, but most are reluctant to discuss it, and do so with a sense of fear and shame. The sources of this stigma are numerous and complicated. Generations of socialization, a natural fear of illness, and the tendency to shun the misunderstood are all partially to blame. There’s another element at play, though, that’s not being sufficiently addressed: the media.

Media messages, as we all know, are everywhere. We look to them for entertainment, information, distraction, and guidance. They infiltrate our consciousness, and shape our culture. This puts them in an incredibly powerful position as a force for major social change.

As a student of communications and a member of campus mental health advocacy group Active Minds, my mission, both now and in my future career, is work with media to move them in the right direction on mental health.

Having experienced struggles with my own mental health, I’ve frequently been surprised by the ways that public perception of mental health often differs from reality. It’s alarmingly common to think of one’s own mental health as infallible, while placing judgment on those who don’t meet this impossible expectation. Stereotypes of people with mental illness as incompetent, weak, or even dangerous are not only common, but culturally accepted. Looking to the media, it doesn’t take long to find out where these false notions come from.

Firstly, references to mental health in the media, be they fiction or journalistic, focus almost exclusively on illness over wellness, as if it were a rare phenomenon. The reality that one in four people live with mental illness, and that it can affect anyone, is too often ignored in favor of sensationalized portrayals, often with an emphasis on violence.

Also common in the media are exploitations of mental health for humor. While there’s humor in even the darkest of situations, attempts at comedic treatment of mental illness are frequently dehumanizing and toxic. Having been a victim of stereotypes in the past, I’m concerned and unsettled by the frequency with which words like “crazy” and “psycho” are thrown about. Depictions of people with mental illness as inferior and deserving of mockery reinforce the notion that they are an acceptable target. Not only does this prevent many people from seeking the help they need, but it closes down the mental health conversation that we all need to be having. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, over two thirds of people with a diagnosable mental illness don’t seek the help they need.

I became personally interested in the effects of the media on mental health perception after beginning to recover from my own bipolar disorder. In first two years of college, during which my symptoms reached a terrifying peak, I spent time as a patient in three psych wards, worked with several doctors, and took a medical leave from school in order to get myself well. It was a difficult and unexpected process, but a necessary one, and one that I’m grateful to be reaching the other end of. Looking back, I can see that my misconceptions and shame held me back from getting help sooner.

The more I’ve learned about mental health, both my own and in general, the more aware I’ve become of media images that work against the mission of ending stigma. As a student of communication, I strongly feel that collaboration between media and mental health advocates would be beneficial to work of both parties.

It is with that in mind that this blog sets forth to catalog and discuss media coverage and depictions of mental health and related issues. I’m hardly an expert, but I hope that at the very least this blog’s posts can serve as a jumping-off point for some interesting and relevant discussion.

So please participate! We all have a voice in ending stigma, and I’m here to help you make yours heard!

12.12.12

Jared Wolf

(The above post was adapted from a guest commentary at the request of The Ithacan for its December 5, 2012 edition. The commentary was not published). 662F6FATWYVG