It was a discussion that was destined to fall short before it began.
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth talking about, said Mike Clair.
Clair is the associate director, public policy with Memorial’s University’s Harris Centre. He was talking about a public forum held Tuesday at MUN, called “How the Media Deals With Mental Illness.”
It’s a topic that is being discussed more and more, so the Harris Centre decided it was time to have a local discussion on the matter, said Clair.
“For those people in the mental health community, they feel that this is the topic du jour, an important issue,” he said.
He also said this issue is too large for any solid conclusions to be found Tuesday night, but that it is still important to talk about it in the hopes of increasing awareness.
“I think the media is a reflection of society, and I think society doesn’t have its act together yet in terms of how we perceive people with mental health issues,” he added.
“Therefore, with the media being a mirror of society, then reflects back our fears and our concerns and our hopes. So I guess what we’re trying to do tonight is to come to some type of understanding as to what we feel as a society about people with mental illness and health issues. That’s going to help the media to cover these types of issues.”
The talk was sponsored by the Harris Centre and featured a panel of four prominent figures in various organizations related to the issue, including: Mark Gruchy, a St. John’s lawyer and president of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Newfoundland and Labrador Chapter; Paula Corcoran, a provincial peer support co-ordinator with Consumers Health Awareness Network Newfoundland and Labrador; RCMP Sgt. Boyd Merrill, media relations officer for the RCMP in this province; and Kerry Hann, managing editor of The Telegram.
All four speakers addressed the issue from their perspectives and while their opinions varied, all mentioned that the media has the power to be both a voice for change and the perpetuator of negative stigmas.
Corcoran, who has been outspoken about her battle with depression in the past, told the crowd of more than 50 people that she’d been asked as part of her preparations to list things the media could do to better accommodate people with mental illness.
Her response to that request was curt.
“I don’t need accommodations. I need human decency. I need respect as an individual. I need to be assured that my privacy will be maintained, that my physical or mental health will not be shared with the world because my neighbour once thought she saw me at the Waterford Hospital. I need to have my rights respected,” she said
Questions from the audience varied widely and ranged from, “when can the media report if a person has a mental illness?” to, “when is that information pertinent?” to, “Should we even call it ‘mental illness?’”
Perhaps the most poignant question of the night came from one person who asked if the media had the right to report on a person’s mental health without their permission and should that kind of information be reported at all.
Hann, as the only media representative on the panel, tackled that question.
“There’s no firm or fast rule on how that works. Different media organizations will use different rules. But again normally, you have to look at it on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
“It’s hard sometimes ... you do have to respect all the individuals — you have to respect their privacy — but again, you have to look at the circumstances,” he said.