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On The Media’s Role Covering Mental Health Issues

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Orange County
The Florida Channel
Former WFTV anchor Mark Joyella spoke about his struggle to come out as a journalist with a mental illness.

Orange County officials held a panel Wednesday looking at the media’s role in covering mental health issues.

While many of the topics discussed are well-known in certain circles, some of these may surprise the average reader. So I’ve put together six things that stood out on the issue.

ONE: Those with mental illness only commit 3 to 5 percent of violent crimes. In fact, those with mental illness are far more likely to become the victims of crime than to be the perpetrator. It’s one of those situations where the media’s coverage of the mentally ill as being violent people who should be feared actually adds to the stigma of mental illness. And that’s not just one man’s opinion; John Hopkin’s researchers analyzed media coverage and found a whopping 40 percent of news stories link violence with mental health, despite empirical evidence to the contrary.

TWO: That stigma costs lives, as Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs put it. Jacobs told her own story: Her brother had bipolar disorder and was a recovered alcoholic who committed suicide. She said she didn’t want to tell her brother’s story publicly because she was afraid of how the media would then treat her as a politician.

THREE: Florida is dead last in the U.S. when it comes to mental health funding. And as Candy Crawford, president of the mental health association of Florida put it, we’re now at an epidemic – not when it comes to people with mental illness, but in their ability to actually get the help they need.

FOUR: If you’re wondering where people many people with mental illness get services, look no further than the jail system. Dr. Leonard Branch, chief psychologist of the Orange County Corrections Department, said between 25 and 30 percent of people in Orange County’s jail are on medications for mental illness. The history of this actually traces back to the 1960s, when lawmakers became horrified at the treatment of the mentally ill in “institutions,” or asylums, and legislated that those with mental illness get care in the community. But no one bothered to fund it, and Branch said over the last 50 years, the mentally ill have been “transinstitutionalized”; in short, the jails took over. If you’ve got some time and some Kleenex, head over to the Orlando Sentinel for Kate Santich’s fantastic coverage of this issue two years ago – before Florida became dead last.

FIVE: Former WFTV anchor Mark Joyella talked about his struggle over the years to come out as someone with mental illness. Joyella has obsessive compulsive disorder. That does not manifest itself in the way you think it does. He worried that coming out professionally would ruin his career. Read his powerful essay, wonderfully titled “screw stigma,” here, as well as his call for more journalists to come out as having mental illness.

SIX: One of my favorite UCF professors Rick Brunson also spoke about the media’s role, and balancing the need to be aggressive with the need to minimize harm. His perfect anecdote: You would never write “the cancerous man walks down the street.” Sounds terrible. But we don’t bat an eye about writing “the schizophrenic man walks down the street.”

WMFE is a partner with Health News Florida, which receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Health reporting on WMFE is supported in part by Florida Hospital and the Winter Park Health Foundation.

Health News Florida reporter Abe Aboraya works for WMFE in Orlando. He started writing for newspapers in high school. After graduating from the University of Central Florida in 2007, he spent a year traveling and working as a freelance reporter for the Seattle Times and the Seattle Weekly, and working for local news websites in the San Francisco Bay area. Most recently Abe worked as a reporter for the Orlando Business Journal. He comes from a family of health care workers.