Tanzina Vega: More and more people have been experiencing anxiety or depression in recent months. While we've gotten better at talking about those types of mental health issues, there's still a lot of stigma and misconceptions surrounding mental illnesses that aren't as widely understood, and that includes in the media, which brings us to Kanye West.
Last month after announcing his bid for president, Kanye made headlines following a campaign rally where he made some pretty outrageous and offensive claims. Now his rally garnered a lot of media attention, but much of it failed to note his experience living with bipolar disorder and how that may have contributed to the rant he gave that evening. After the event, Kanye's wife, Kim Kardashian, posted a statement on Instagram that said, "We as a society talk about giving grace to the issue of mental health as a whole, however, we should also give it to the individuals who are living with it in times when they need it the most."
The media has long struggled that its coverage of celebrities and others with mental illness consider Brittany Spears whose 2007 mental health crisis was so widely scrutinized and so often resurfaced even in mainstream media that it led to memes making light of the artist's experience.
For today's media conversation, we're going to talk about how the media can get better when it comes to covering mental health. Danielle Belton is the editor-in-chief of The Root, and she joins me now. Danielle, welcome to the show.
Danielle Belton: Thanks for having me.
Tanzina: When you look at the media coverage of Kanye and other celebrities that are dealing with similar mental health issues, is there a pattern that you see emerging?
Danielle: I think what I often see is a focus on what's salacious and exciting, and what's good drama, as opposed to looking at this person in crisis, who probably needs help and support. There seems to be a lack of sensitivity. It always goes back to, "Well, look at this wild thing they said," and "Oh, he is running for president." It's just like, "Wait, this guy like clearly is having some issues right now. Why are we treating this as if it's a serious campaign?" All signs point to, "She's not his own wife who has come out concerned."
I feel like the pattern that always emerges is this focus on a salacious as if this was just any other celebrity story of drama, heightened coverage, and the colorful language, but without any of the deep analysis that actually goes into what the person with mental health is experiencing.
Tanzina: What in your opinion, Danielle, should political journalists, in particular, who were looking at covering that, because I can imagine the conversations in newsrooms. Kanye decided he's going to run for president. We have to talk about this. How would you have approached that story?
Danielle: I definitely would have approached it with a lot more sensitivity and made it more mental health story than a political story, because the reality is Kanye West hadn't done the work that he needed to do to get on the ballot in 50 states. His vice presidential pick was so that no one had ever heard of. It just seemed like something that was just thrown together. It didn't seem like something that was a real concentrated effort to become president of the United States. It seems something less serious, and maybe his actual condition was more serious. To me, it should have been treated as a health story. What's interesting to me; I wrote about this in a piece for The Root. If these were the rantings of just a homeless man on the streets, no one would care.
There are plenty of people who are battling mental illness, who are battling homelessness, who say similar things to what Kanye has said. We don't put cameras in front of them. We don't make some headline news. We don't take them seriously. In fact, we often ignore them and don't even help them get treatment. The fact that you have someone who's exhibiting the exact same behavior, but they're famous, and your approach is to stick a camera in their face and treat it as if it's legitimate is disturbing to me.
Tanzina: A lot of people now I feel like have embraced the idea that depression is a thing. It's real. That people struggle with it. Americans struggle with it. Anxiety is something that many Americans struggle with, but when it comes to things like bipolar disorder, like schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses that people are less comfortable dealing with, how do those conversations shift depending on race, gender, sexuality in the media?
Danielle: There's definitely a lot of stigma around bipolar disorder. I personally suffer from bipolar type 2 disorder myself. When I was first diagnosed, I had a hard time with the diagnosis because I knew it was so severe, and it was something that I couldn't treat lightly. Often, when you hear the word bipolar used, it's thrown around as a slur, often on reality shows between like wealthy housewives, insulting one another over who's being the most dramatic. So people have a real misrepresentation, a real misunderstanding of severe diagnoses like bipolar, like schizophrenia, because people think it's scary. They think it's unpredictable. They think that somehow people who are mentally ill might harm them. When the reality for the vast majority of mentally ill people, the only person they're at risk of hurting are themselves.
Most mentally ill people, most people who have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are not violent. They're just people who are having trouble balancing the issues, the chemical imbalances and other problems they have emotionally, or otherwise in their minds. Until we start to talk about mental health in the same way we talk about physical health, I think there's always going to be a certain level of stigma attached to it because people want to believe that you can control every aspect of your body, but you just can't.
Tanzina: The President Trump's mental health has been scrutinized in the media, and so has that of former Vice President Joe Biden, who was our presumptive 2020 democratic nominee. How would you assess the media's coverage on that front, Danielle?
Danielle: I'd also say it's poor because again, it feels more like a joke or a punchline as opposed to a real serious analysis. I see often the word narcissist thrown around about Donald Trump, and sure he may be a narcissist. I've been reading Mary Trump's book, who is a psychologist, and she goes into a very deep analysis that it would take so many batteries of tests that the President would never sit for to actually ascertain what might be his problem.
It's a much more severe issue than I think the media often realizes or portrays, because clearly it clouds his judgment. It keeps him from acting on things in the way that he should, and responding to things responsibly. I think it's important to look at the President's mental health and talk about it, but I think we need to talk about it in a serious way not in a way where we're just making fun of him.
Tanzina: Danielle, let's talk a little bit about fictionalized depictions of mental illness; television, movies, for example, are we doing better?
Danielle: It's a mixed bag. In some respects, we have made some improvements. I've seen some very moving depictions of bipolar disorder particularly on the TV show Dave where one of the characters is bipolar and is struggling with it. You see him go through this journey that is much more realistic and grounded than perhaps other portrayals that I've seen in the past.
Homeland, a show that I have watched throughout the years, which stars Claire Danes, where she plays a woman with bipolar disorder, and her portrayal is very nuanced, but I think there's still this tendency to be just flip and talk about using the word crazy, to describe people insane and showing people in almost a garish, cartoonish way, which only adds to the stigma.
I do feel like there is a lot of improvement that is happening. You do see people opening up more in their perspectives and their depictions of how people are dealing with trauma. I made a story which deals with the aftermath of sexual assault. You see that the character dealing with PTSD, and that's been a very grounded and nuanced and realistic portrayal of it. I feel like things are going in the right direction, but we still have some ways to go.
Tanzina: You know what? We need to turn the spotlight on ourselves. A lot of journalists in this profession is not an easy profession. Danielle, as you know, a lot of us struggle with mental illness or experienced mental health issues as a result of the job. Is there something that newsrooms can do?
Danielle: Newsrooms can definitely do a better job of supporting their employees who struggled with mental illness. Mostly, the issue that people don't realize, like you can go, go, go, go, go, but eventually you'll become useless and not be able to do your job if you don't check in on your mental health. You're not helpful to the mission of the news organization if you're so sick that you can't do your job.
It's important for there to be employee wellness programs, for there to be adequate mental health care within health care plans, adequate coverage for mental health. There has to be adequate time off for when people are experiencing burnout or having severe distress. There needs to be more flexible hours. One of the things that's been great about where I work is that we have unlimited PTO, and we have very flexible work hours.
I often tell my employees, "If you need to take a half-day, take a half-day. If you need to take a week off, let me know in advance, we'll schedule that week so you can get your head back together." I try to be very supportive of my staff and continue to have like a regular conversation around mental health and staying on top of it because these jobs are very stressful. So it's very, very important for everyone to check in with themselves and say, "Am I at my optimal best? If I'm not, what can I do to get back to it?" Newsrooms need to be supportive of whatever measures those staff, writers, those editors need to get back to a place of peace.
Tanzina: Very important words, Danielle, and I hope that newsrooms are listening. Danielle Belton is the editor-in-chief at The Root. Danielle, thanks so much for joining me.
Danielle: Thank you for having me.
Tanzina: If you or someone you know is concerned about their mental health, the number for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's national hotline is 1-800-662-4357. This is The Takeaway.
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