Brand building through storytelling

Mental illness and the media: they can’t look away anymore

One August Sunday in 1993, I reached into my New York Times, determined to beat my husband to the weekly magazine, and was confronted by a cover of stark and breathtaking honesty. There stood a model-slim woman, neither young nor old, with half her chest exposed, Amazon-style, to reveal a mastectomy scar. The coverline read: “You can’t look away anymore: the anguished politics of breast cancer.”

Staring at the image, I thought of all the other women out there with one breast or none at all. I had worked out in gyms all over North America, yet I’d never seen a mastectomy scar in a locker room. Were survivors ashamed to reveal their bodies? It suddenly struck me that I’d always wondered what a mastectomy scar looks like. At last I knew, along with legions of other readers. The cover drew four times the usual level of reader comment, much of it quivering with emotion. “I do not think women have to have an obnoxious voice or chronically display anger to push for a cure for breast cancer. Nor do I think it is necessary to use ‘shock therapy’ on the cover of your magazine.”

What the magazine had done was give voice to a shocking truth that had touched almost every family without breaking through to a place on the public health agenda. After all the pamphlets on breast self-examination, all the gallant survivors sharing their stories, breast cancer was still killing and disfiguring women. By capturing the truth in an unforgettable image, the Times sparked a clamor of calls for action.

I thought of that article and its impact as I read last Saturday’s Globe and Mail, inaugurating a seven-day series, Canada’s Mental Health Crisis. The first installment profiled three families who have waged a harrowing, lonely and utterly exhausting struggle to copy with one member’s mental illness. These people, who might live next door to you, explain how it feels to have your delusional son committed, or be pulled out of a staff meeting because your suicidal brother has gone missing. They tell hard truths, with real names and photographs. It takes courage to share that kind of story because diseases of the mind, unlike those of the body, have been stigmatized and ignored, even though one in seven of us will be suffer from a mental illness at some point in our lifetime.

There isn’t any annual drive to wear a ribbon to fight mental illness. Corporate sponsors aren’t flocking to bankroll fun runs and walkathons for this largely invisible cause. Waiting times for psychiatric treatment go unpublicized and unrecorded, while waiting times for hip replacements are rigorously monitored. The silence can get terribly personal. If you land in a psych ward, don’t expect a procession of visitors bearing flowers.

I had personal reasons to cheer when my morning paper declared a mental health crisis and put a team of reporters on the case. In my former life as Editor ofChatelaine, where I wrote about my years-long struggle with depression, I often heard from readers who were still in the thick of it, ashamed and alone. Once I found a suicide call on my voicemail. Why would so many readers turn to me? Because I’d been there. A teacher once wrote me a moving letter about depression, then begged me not to publish it under her real name: “If the kids’ parents find out what’s really wrong with me, I could lose my job.”

I’m old enough to remember when it wasn’t okay for a woman to talk about the health of her breasts. I have a friend whose mother found a lump, but was too embarrassed to see her doctor. By the time she finally changed her mind, it was too late. Women’s magazines had already begun to publish articles on breast cancer (my mother wrote a few). Ever so slowly, the disease was becoming a women’s issue. But breast cancer’s current status as an urgent human issue reflects decades of advocacy that couldn’t have happened without the support of a vigilant press.

With mental health, the public conversation is only now beginning. I hope you’ll join in. And that one day soon, we’ll see tens of thousands of people rallying in the streets for mental health, wearing T-shirts with the names of their loved ones.

Click here to read my previous post on this topic.


Posted by Rona

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