Media and Mental health; Stop the “Crazy talk”

Have you listened over the radio or come across tabloids; a post on social media or watched on television a journalist or presenter refer to a person as “Crazy?” 

Well, you and I have probably used it in casual conversations and without even ever noticing! Some movies have normalised the word crazy like one of my favorite ‘The gods must be CRAZY’  have the word in the title! There are songs, you remember the 2009 hit of Beyoncé and Jay Z “Crazy in Love” and Eminem’s crazy in love

From the day I started reading about mental health and talking to different mental health advocates and psychologists, I have come to learn that language is one of the contributing factors to the stigma surrounding mental health. The word Crazy is one of those words that are all over the place and used to describe both good and bad moments for instance “That guy is crazy” “I had a crazy day…

I have been paying attention to how the media reports and talks about mental health and on a certain morning whilst watching a news digest I thought I didn’t hear it but truth is it was said! “People who commit suicide are cowards and selfish…” These and more words are used unknowingly but they give life and sustain the stigma around mental health and they make it hard for people dealing with mental health challenges to seek help or treatment.

The ignorance that surrounds the language used by the media while talking about mental health is very worrying! The media continues to  misrepresent mental health thus sustaining the prejudice and stigma around mental health.

The language used by journalists and “netizen journalists” while talking about mental health disorders for instance “cowards”, “selfish’, “aggressive”, “violent” to mention but a few are some of the stigmatising words making people with mental health challenges fear to come out and seek help for fear of being stigmatised or discriminated against by their social circle. Imagine you are depressed, gained weight or lost weight, or you have no sleep and everyone you open up to tells you that “man, you are crazy!”,  “ you have got to Man up”…

The media is considered as a powerful tool of interaction and such use of labeling or condemning language will bring about relapse to people healing from a mental health disorder. They will also start to withdraw from social networks because they fear to be discriminated against.

According to the World Health Organisation, 1 in 4 people have a mental health challenge. While the media is considered as an educative and informative tool that gives in-depth insight to issues happening, there is more to research and study to challenge the stereotypes and stigma surrounding mental health.

As stated by the  National Center for Biotechnology Information report, the media is considered as one of the sources of information about mental health. Given the power of this tool, the media can challenge mental health stigma and promote seeking help for instance getting mental health related topics on the trending list of twitter with a hashtag. The more conversations with the hashtag, the more awareness will be spread.

Great strides have been made by the media on reporting on issues surrounding mental health however there is still more work to be done. Information provided by news media for instance the way Hussein Walugembe’s story was reported, it lacked a mental health angle to it with the media choosing to focus on the political and violent angle of the story.

 Walugembe was a motorcycle taxi operator who died inside the Masaka Police station after setting himself on fire when the police impounded his Boda boda (motorcycle) after violating a curfew order during the Covid-19 lockdown on the 3rd of July. His story gained international coverage. It was a hotcake on mainstream media with sensationalised headlines like “Omuvubuka yekumyeko omuliro e Masaka”, “mother to Hussein Walugembe, the motorcycle rider who set himself ablaze, has lost her speech”. and a wash all over social media feeds with polarising comments.

Mental health remains a difficult term that is not well understood by the majority of not only the mass media and new media but also the general public. For example, did you know that every referral hospital in Uganda has a mental health department? The widespread stigma and the continual misrepresentation of mental health as a complex topic by the language used to talk about it affects the health seeking behavior of those dealing with mental health challenges.

The media is undeniably one of the most powerful tools of communication. If rightly used, the media can influence public attitudes and perceptions about mental health. The media needs a better understanding and insight into mental health so as to have informed conversations about mental health challenges which will be the basis of influencing public beliefs on mental health.

Shemei Agabo is a budding investigative journalist and Host of ‘The Event’. The Event is an increasingly popular original YouTube talk show series focused on mental health and wellbeing. Agabo’s passion rests in telling stories that bring about social & political change. He is currently a fellow at the African Institute for Investigative journalism.