Stereotypes have their roots in the survival instincts of our ancestors. If you saw a big cat with massive fangs it was a safe bet if it invited you to dinner you’d be its main course. Stereotypes helped our fledgling ancestors stay alive and when we began to make war on each other, they let our ancestors know who was safe to approach and who wasn’t.
A stereotype is a means for catalouging and assessing different people and risks. When we weren’t killing each other, stereotypes were a valuable tool to help us understand and communicate with different cultures when we traded and migrated. Today we use stereotypes of cultures as a base for effective communication and integration, and I see no wrong in this if you research the culture to understand its perspectives. Stereotypes are not about labelling people, it’s about understanding them.
But, when I see an article like this front page spread in today’s Metro (4th May, 2016) I realise that the media has a completely different take on stereotypes. The media is a vehicle for perpetuating, and sometimes constructing, negative stereotypes to divide and degrade people. Unfortunately, the media is a more popular system of education for the masses than schools, colleges and universities. Unlike education institutions, the media doesn’t have the same duty of ensuring positive cognitive development. I can’t imagine what would happen to a teacher who told his students that people with mental illnesses were violent and unpredictable. And yet the media has a variety of platforms to do this on.
In this particular article we have two stereotypes (a double whammy. Ed), and I need to be thankful that there is some evolution of mental health stereotypes, since it took second billing to the failings of the NHS. Cuts in government spending aside, this isn’t an unusual story. I hear this often, statutory support isn’t forthcoming or easy to access if you are mentally ill. Worse still if you are the parent of someone who is mentally ill. Many of the parents I speak to feel abandoned, isolated and broken by the lack of support available. It’s worse still if the child is post 16, when schools and local services tend to wash their hands of them (but that’s another article. Ed).
However, what did make my blood bubble a little is that we have yet another story of just how dangerous the mentally ill are. It gives the impression that a mental illness is somehow a precursor to some violent rage, a stereotype I was hoping the media was tired of.
I spent some time as a journalist, so I know sometimes we fall back to pandering to the base needs of our readers and yet the article left me feeling exhausted. We are fighting to stamp out the stigma of ill mental health, against a tide of sensationalist journalism. It’s no wonder people still feel ashamed to come forward when they have a mental illness. Society still isn’t equipped to handle frank discussions about mental illness and the media does very little to help.
So I understand stereotypes and I understand the need for sensationalist journalism. Yet I still can’t condone these types of articles. In a week where we are offended by racist comments from the Labour Party, no one is up in arms about how we treat and view the mentally ill. And that says a lot. 1 in 4 people have a mental illness, including psychosis and depression. That’s a quarter of the population viewed in this negative light and no one is offended or upset by it. I find that shameful.
This is a battle, one which I’m proud to be a foot soldier in. So here is my battle cry for the week, ‘We will not give quarter, for we are The Quarter’. We are The Quarter who are still oppressed, misunderstood and misrepresented. We are The Quarter we have to hide ourselves from the world in shame. We are The Quarter and we will give no quarter.