Improving Media Coverage of Mentally Ill

05/13/2010 11:08 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The election of Barack Obama signaled many things about us as a nation: we prize thoughtfulness over recklessness; we respect law and liberty; and we are willing to give a chance to all people, including people of color.

Let us not be fooled by the sound and fury of the birthers and tea party zealots, who tote placards of Obama as a witch doctor. At our core, we are a tolerant society.

So it is not surprising that we are becoming more tolerant of the mentally ill as well. The late Senator Ted Kennedy and Congressman Patrick Kennedy deserve some of the credit for that, with their leadership in passing the 2008 mental health parity law. As do some members of the mentally ill community, like Elyn Saks, a schizophrenic, who has written openly about her illness while demonstrating her scholarly gifts every day as a law professor and associate dean at USC Law School.

Increasingly, the press is learning to cover mental illness in a humane manner. Consider the coverage of the copy-cat knife wielders, who attacked children in schools in China. Though it is possible that some of these men suffered from depression, the media in this country focused on the financial, marital, and employment woes of the criminals.

Then there was the fair-minded reporting of the Russian orphan scandal. Most TV newscasters avoided using the term "mentally ill" to describe the boy, who, according to his onetime adoptive mother, was "psychopathic."

That is not to say that everyone got the coverage right. For instance, Rick Sanchez and Martin Savidge of CNN made the mistake of referring to the boy as "psychotic." I am not quibbling here. As I have written numerous times before, psychopaths plan extremely anti-social and violent acts for which they show no remorse, while psychotics are simply "divorced from reality" and rarely violent except when they misread a situation.

It is important to point out this difference because it is not some filigreed distinction. It is a gulf.

Those of us, like me, who take anti-psychotic medication don't want to be grouped with those who engage in sadistic, even murderous behavior like Cho, a psychopath, who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech.

More recently, the L.A. Times produced two compassionate pieces on mental illness. A front-page feature, which included photos of patients locked behind bars or handcuffed to a wall, limns the historically inhumane treatment of the mentally ill in Haiti and should go a long way toward educating the public about the stigma that still exists in some countries for those with disorders of the mind.

Many of these Haitians are enduring bouts of anxiety, depression and psychosis since the earthquake left most of them homeless.

As Ken Ellingwood, the Times reporter, eloquently wrote, "On a recent day, a dozen patients languished behind bars in a sun-scorched concrete courtyard fouled by human waste. Half wandered without clothes."

Ellingwood then pointed out that change may be on the way regarding mental illness in Haiti. An international corps of volunteer doctors and other mental-health professionals, in conjunction with Haitian officials, are trying to set up clinics and a system of community health services to provide help "on the ground."

Even in our own country, the system does not always work, as the Times indicated in another recent article, this one on a woman accused of stabbing four people at a Target store in West Hollywood. In and out of psychiatric facilities for years, Layla Trawick, who started hallucinating at the age of 3, sometimes declined to take her medication, but as the Times noted tragically, she was "often unable to obtain it."

Due to the recession, counties have had to cut services, closing community clinics in some cases and halving the funding for "a program for severely mentally ill Medi-Cal recipients."

No one is trying to excuse Trawick for her violent actions. According to the Times, one of her victims was a woman holding a baby. Despite this deplorable behavior, Trawick herself was arguably a victim. She was not always able to get the help and medication she needed. The Times jump headline expressed this well, "Mental health system failed her."