A week or so ago, Memorial University’s Harris Centre held a public forum on the how the media deals with mental illness. The message from attendees seemed pretty clear: unless someone’s coming forward to talk about mental issues, the subject is something that probably shouldn’t be media fodder. In other words, you need permission to talk about someone’s mental illness.
If the media has trouble dealing with mental illness, the problem is even more extensive for the courts and for media covering court cases that also involve mental illness. (And that is where most reporting on an individual’s mental condition comes up.)
The problem is that, when the mentally ill are in court, a big part of their circumstances has already become public. Something has happened, charges have been laid and the public is aware of the criminal event, if not of the particular circumstances.
Here’s one example: a massive, £6.7 million British lawsuit as a result of traffic accident, a lawsuit with the kind of dollar amount almost guaranteed to attract attention. The huge costs involved are the result of a claim of lost earnings, millions of pounds paid in cash to the man injured in the crash — millions of pounds where the only record is the man’s own notes in a blue notebook.
Here’s the judge in the case. “But an entirely separate difficulty, which has bedevilled this case throughout, has been the claimant's unwillingness to provide any proper information to the defendant in support of his large claim for loss of earnings. For example, the claimant has endeavoured to shroud in mystery how precisely he claims to have earned such large sums of money before the accident. He has given a bewildering number of different explanations of his role, including ‘a company director;’ ‘an offshore agent;’ ‘a consultant;’ ‘marketing director — corporate hospitality;’ ‘involved in a corporate hospitality partnership;’ ‘negotiating sales for clients from the Gulf, Far East, U.S.A. and Europe;’ ‘chartering yachts where the client did not wish his or her own name to be on any agreement;’ ‘joining Legend Management Corporation, which undertook contracts for private clients including foreign governments;’ ‘agent with Legend and Invesco 1994-2002.’ At various times, he has alleged that he has signed the Official Secrets Act and/or that he was not at liberty to divulge his precise occupation for security reasons.
“The truth seems rather more prosaic. The claimant now says that he earned his money by arranging parties on yachts for various named individuals, including Mohammed Al Fayed, Asil Nadir, Silvio Berlusconi, and various Saudi princes. There is no documentary evidence of any kind (beyond the Claimant’s own manuscript entries in a blue notebook, of which more later) to support the involvement of these people in the claimant’s business affairs, or the payments that they allegedly made to him.”
It’s almost impossible to cover the trial without touching on what the judge describes succinctly as a crucial problem in the case: “Ultimately, this unsupported claim depends entirely on the assertions of the claimant, a man who, according to the evidence, remains mentally ill.”
That information, as personal as it is, can’t help but play a pivotal role in the case.
Closer to home, there’s a Nova Scotia child abuse case that has garnered a fair amount of attention in legal circles, perhaps because of the strangely circular logic at the centre of it, contained in a report cited by the judge:
“There is evidence that suggests that (the accused) has developed a delusional disorder with primary religious delusions starting about March 2010, but in all likelihood predating that to some extent, at least in its prodromal stages. Mr. Jones’ delusional beliefs centre squarely on his belief that he is Jesus Christ. More importantly, because he believes he is Jesus Christ, he believes that his actions are unassailable and infallible. He quite clearly reports that he knows the difference between right and wrong but because he is Jesus Christ, he can do no wrong.”
That’s a critical issue that is hard to ignore.
The problem becomes how to cover a case where the allegations are known, but the underlying issues lie in something other than straightforward criminal behaviour.
No one is likely to simply find themselves in the media as a result of the fact that they are suffering from a mental illness. It just isn’t news.
But it’s not as simple as saying that mental illness shouldn’t be reported. Sometimes, it’s an integral piece of a larger story that’s already started to unfold.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.