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2024 Colloquium On Mental Health, The Law And Media Advocacy

By Law Mefor 

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Currently, there is a significant increase in mental disease due to the high rate of acute poverty among Nigerians. The Nigerian government’s commitment to the issue of mental health will be demonstrated by the Mental Health Act’s immediate and thorough implementation. Despite the Mental Health Act being passed into law, the Federal Ministry of Health has not yet established the Department of Mental Health, despite it being a crucial component of the Act.

The Federal Ministry of Health’s refusal to create the Department of Mental Health inside the ministry as required by the Mental Health Act was one of the key topics of discussion at the 2024 Colloquium on Mental Health and Law, which was held on May 11.

Another issue that surfaced was the necessity for mental health professionals and the media to partner to promote the Mental Health Act, deal with challenges related to access, and dispel certain myths around mental illness.

People’s views and perceptions are greatly influenced by the media. Several studies demonstrate the link between the stigma associated with mental illness and how it is portrayed in the media. The media can portray unfavourable stereotypes of mental illness, which can be a double-edged sword, but the media can also be an effective tool in combating the stigma associated with mental illness. When handled appropriately or inappropriately, the media may normalise or demonise discussing mental health issues and seeking assistance. 

The media is possibly the most effective way to raise awareness of mental health issues and encourage people to modify their unfavourable perceptions of those who suffer from mental illness, provided it is done responsibly and without making the cases of mental illness seem sensational. 

Prince Harry and Princess Meghan were in Nigeria this May for a mental health advocacy event where the Prince (Harry) made a profound statement: Everyone is impacted by mental health. There is more to mental health than only neurotic and psychotic disorders. The focus should be more on preventing mental health disorders that could cause social impairments and hospitalisations from occurring at all. Prince Harry was correct, but how many people are aware that mental health concerns extend beyond pathological mental illnesses?

The conversation about mental health often brings up negative thoughts like depression, suicidal thoughts, and delusions, and this is where society fails to comprehend mental health. To correct this false impression, mental health practitioners need to partner with the media in a strategic and sustained manner.

The three main purposes of the media are to inform, educate, and entertain. The public believes in and trusts the media. The public gets their information and education from the media. The media has unprecedented control over agenda-setting in the public space, thanks to this assumption. To reach a wider audience, mental health education must leverage this. The takeaway is that mental health is a component of total well-being and a tool that everyone needs to use to live their best life.

Many studies have been conducted in the past few decades to investigate how the media shapes our worldviews. According to studies, the media has a significant influence on people’s opinions and behaviours in today’s society, making it one of the biggest influences of the modern era. What individuals see and hear in the media has an impact on their daily lives. Both prosocial and negative effects are present. The media synthesises the concept and understanding of mental health. Perfect instances of how the media contributes to the further stigmatisation of mental illness are the exaggeration and misleading portrayal of mental disease in the media, including in films!

People frequently don’t know what mental wellness is or what constitutes mental illness. Realising that there are a range of mental health issues is crucial. We can be on the positive or negative end of the spectrum at different times, depending on social realities, life events, and coping mechanisms. It is not easy to determine someone’s mental health—or rather, mental illness—just by glancing at them and concluding, for example, that they do not appear depressed. Humans can conceal or disguise their inner storms. Depending on the individual, depression can present itself in several ways.

The media’s heinous generalisation of mental illness is harmful. The media have a reductionist and oversimplified view of mental health. The mainstream media misrepresents depression, suggesting that a person with depression may constantly consider suicide. Unfortunately, the mass media is now failing to raise awareness of mental health, despite the enormous potential it has to do so.

Fighting stigma and negative stereotypes in the media is certainly a sure bet. When we consider the stereotype of a mentally ill person propagated by the media, it becomes even more terrifying. It is a popular belief in films and television shows that those suffering from mental illness tend to be violent, murderous, and unable to work. Nonetheless, the public is not made aware by the media that extremely few people with serious mental illnesses commit serious crimes, in comparison to the violence committed by those deemed to be “normal”.

Psychiatric medicine is the term used to describe mental health therapy in the media. However, the media neglects to report on other mental health providers as well as alternative therapy modalities. The media prefers to portray psychiatry as the dominant, if not the only, field in mental health; so, many individuals are even unaware of the various subfields and specialisations within mental health. The stigma associated with mental health practitioners and the general lack of knowledge about these specialists contribute to the unmet mental health needs of people in Nigeria.

The media have to teach that mental health is not all about mental illness. Staying mentally healthy is as important as getting the mentally ill well again. Since media usage is on the rise, there is little doubt that it can be a powerful instrument in the fight against stigma associated with mental illness, creating a safe space where people feel comfortable discussing mental health issues and changing negative views. The media can be a powerful weapon for de-stigmatising mental disease when it has been at the forefront of the stigmatisation of mental illness. It can also serve as a forum for discussing mental health issues and normalising asking for assistance.

In the field of mental health, where media may be a potent ally, an integrative strategy can be employed. Prejudices regarding mental illness can be dispelled by the media showing empathy for those who suffer from it, highlighting the fact that mental disease is real and treatable, and reporting on mental health and mental illness responsibly and truthfully.

Films and television programmes that portray mental illness must be realistic as well. The public should be inspired by the success tales of those who have overcome mental illness, which should be featured in the media. Additionally, many perspectives on therapy should be pushed into avenues ranging from large ones like news channels or newspapers to smaller ones like blogs and social media. Thus, it is important to support counselling, therapy, community models, and deinstitutionalization when the media portrays mental care as a viable alternative.

Guidelines for reporting mental illness, ethics, and a comprehensive perspective on mental health should be emphasised throughout the appropriate mental health sensitization training that reporters and editors working in the media should get. Additionally, in such training, the function of media reporters ought to be encouraged. In these situations, it’s critical to debate and express on available platforms the “correct” information about mental disease, highlighting the fact that mental health is a continuum and that mental illness has a wide range of disorders and symptoms.

Without a doubt, the media bears a great deal of responsibility for correctly sensitising the public to issues like mental health in addition to providing information. While expressing gratitude to Dr. AG Ahmed for organising the 2024 Colloquium on Mental Health and the Law, the Federal Ministry of Health ought to take the necessary steps by establishing the desperately required Department of Mental Health, and state ministries of health will follow. 

Law Mefor, an Abuja-based forensic and social psychologist, is a fellow of The Abuja School of Social and Political Thought; drlawmefor@gmail.com; Twitter: @Drlawsonmefor.

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