Head case

By ADAM REILLY  |  July 23, 2008

This commonality highlights what Bob Carolla, NAMI’s director of media relations, calls a broader, beneficial evolution of the press and society as a whole. “I think there’s been an overall improvement in terms of how the news media reports about mental illness,” says Carolla. “And I think it parallels a growing understanding and awareness within the public at large. There’s a greater knowledge about certain kinds of diagnoses: more people know what major depression means than did five or ten years ago, for example. And my sense is that newspapers and magazines, and even television and radio, are taking more of a health-and-science approach to their coverage.”

The press also deserves credit, according to Carolla and other advocates, for its improved coverage of systemic problems involving treatment for the mentally ill. “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution did a brilliant series on abuse and neglect in Georgia State Hospital,” says Dr. Kenneth Duckworth, NAMI’s medical director and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. “The Globe has consistently covered the crisis of mental-health care for children in a thoughtful way. There’s more upstream coverage: instead of reporting on one guy who didn’t get care, and did one bad thing, there’s now an emphasis on the overall picture of inadequate funding and inadequate services — which, of course, can contribute to bad outcomes of all sorts.”

Making the connection
Maybe this increasingly enlightened stance on mental illness — among the media and the broader public — explains the Boston press’s reluctance to aggressively cover Marzilli’s diagnosis and its implications. After all, if Marzilli’s problem is medical in nature (or so the argument goes), surely he’s entitled to some degree of privacy, at least until his trial starts. What’s more, exploring the possible connections between bipolar disorder and inappropriate sexual behavior could reinforce the notion that individuals with serious mental illnesses need to be regarded warily by the rest of us — a notion that advocates like Carolla and Duckworth have long worked to debunk.

But according to Otto Wahl — author of Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness (Rutgers) and professor of psychology at the University of Hartford — a link between bipolar disorder and sexually predatory behavior was made for the public as soon as Marzilli’s diagnosis was reported. Since it was, he argues, the Boston media should be evaluating what connection, if any, actually exists between Marzilli’s illness and his alleged misdeeds. “Bipolar disorder could have something to do with his behavior, or it could have nothing to do with his behavior — but what he’s accused of isn’t a routine outcome,” says Wahl. “[The Boston media] didn’t get enough information to allow for reasonable judgments.

“The question of whether someone’s mental-health history is relevant or not should always be there,” adds Wahl. “If not, just leave it out. But if it’s named, it would be useful to talk about what it is. Don’t just throw out the term.”

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Related: Rise of psychosurgery, Arbitrary imprisonment, Reporter-turned-psychiatrist pans Virginia Tech coverage, More more >
  Topics: Media -- Dont Quote Me , Jim Marzilli, Eliot Spitzer, Massachusetts Republican Party,  More more >
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