Four Things the Media Got Wrong About Mental Illness This Year

[EXCERPTS] December 30, 2020 Mental illness was in the news more this year than in recent memory. Until 2020, many people were unaware that calling for help in a mental health crisis summons a police officer instead of an ambulance.

News stories also focused on the devastating toll of the coronavirus on our mental health—the so-called “fourth wave” of the pandemic. The public learned that the mental health system is ill-equipped to meet the needs of those feeling the effects of social isolation, economic uncertainty, fear of the virus and loss of loved ones.

Here are four things the media got wrong about mental illness this year.

Conflating Mental Health With Mental Illness
This year, news stories focused more on those with mental health concerns brought about by the pandemic than those with serious mental illness. I don’t mean to minimize the effects of the coronavirus—many people are hurting, and the pandemic may indeed lead to more depression, anxiety and substance use disorders. However, no one is talking about helping the most severely mentally ill who have long been suffering. 

People with mental health issues are able to care for themselves and meet their basic needs. On the other end of the spectrum, people with severe mental illness—schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders—suffer chronic, unrelenting symptoms that cause devastation to the lives of the sufferer and those around them. Their rational minds are subsumed by delusions and disorganized thoughts.

People with mental health issues can be helped through counseling and self-care. People with severe mental illness need a full continuum of services—from long-term inpatient care to step-down units, intensive outpatient services, community programs, housing and supportive services. This continuum of services does not currently exist, but the media did not cover this angle.

Framing Treatment of Mental Illness As a Choice
Mental illnesses are disorders of the brain—the organ responsible for decision-making, reasoning, daily functioning— everything. Psychosis causes disordered thinking and delusions because it is a brain disease. Yet for some reason the public cannot grasp this concept.

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