Sensationalism, mental illness, and the London Free Press

It was with alarm that I became aware of an article by London Free Press reporter Jonathon Sher about Bethesda House, LHSC, and mental illness where Mr. Sher made some broad assumptions about not only those who have a mental illness, but about how we, as citizens of London should feel about them and the places where they are treated. The fact is that 1 in 5 of us has, or will have in the course of our lives, a mental illness. My personal  experience has been documented in other posts here, here, and here. I also have direct experience with advocating at all levels for the need for increased support for those with a mental illness.

Our own parliament defines mental health as:Mental health is defined as the capacity to feel, think and act in ways that enhance one’s ability to enjoy life and deal with challenges. 

Mental illness is defined by the Public Health Agency of Canada as: “Mental illnesses are characterized by alterations in thinking, mood or behaviour associated with significant distress and impaired functioning.”

The Canadian Psychiatric Association quite rightly points our the dangers of how we define mental illness saying, “Mental illness and mental disorder are not easy to define. Misunderstandings lead to misuse and abuse of the terms, reinforce myths, and even prevent people from getting help when it is really needed.

The media has shaped many of the ways we think of people with mental illness through movies and TV like Psycho, American and Dexter, watching the real-life drama of Charlie Sheen and Bi-Polar/Bi-winning, or the sensational news stories of murderous rampages. We often don’t think  of people with mental health issues as having a medical and treatable illness. Mental illness makes many people very uncomfortable and since it is an “invisible” illness, it’s hard for us to understand the circumstances of a person with a mental illness in the same way we might if a person had cancer or a serious physical disability.

In the article published by the Free Press, of which there are two versions (version one and version two), there is an implication that some possibly dangerous people will be moving into the recently acquired Bethesda House and that the public need to be informed. The title of the article on May 15th was “London Health Sciences Centre’s secret: Program for psychotic disorders could move to former Bethesda Centre” and it opened with the following sentence, “London’s largest hospital is considering moving a program for adolescents and young adults with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders into a residential neighbourhood.“ The headline and first sentence are written in a way as to sensationalize this issue by implying that LHSC intentionally kept the move a “secret” because they feared the community’s response. Mr. Sher is perpetuating a stereotype that people with mental illnesses should be feared.  

Emphasizing  this point at the end of the first sentence Sher says, “a possibility officials didn’t acknowledge until pressed repeatedly by The Free Press.”  So not only is a threat moving into residential neighbourhoods, but it’s being hidden by our local hospital. The article goes on to say, “London Health Sciences Centre announced Wednesday what appeared to be unambiguous good news for the London neighbourhood tucked behind the Children’s Museum .“ So now we not only is there danger and a cover up, but Mr. Sher has made sure to let us know that it will be close to a children’s play facility. All of this in the first 57 words of his article. 

The article goes on to to explain that at first it was supposed to be only an eating disorders program moving to Bethesda but, “It was only after The Free Press insisted on a response that the head of the hospital acknowledged Thursday that PEPP might be moved.” What is PEPP? PEPP stands for the Prevention and Early Intervention Program for Psychoses which, according to the website for the program is, “a community-focused mental health program which provides prompt assessment and comprehensive, phase-specific medical and psychosocial treatment for individuals experiencing their first episode of psychosis. The program is structured around a modified assertive case management model. The intensity of the treatment is guided by the patient’s needs, the family’s needs and the stage of illness.” This program is designed to provide an early intervention to help teens and young adults in preventing serious mental illness. I worry however that these young people may stay away after the way these articles have framed them as a potential danger. Young adults are self-conscious enough about how they are viewed and as a result of these articles they may never go to PEPP to get the help they need.

The article, with help from an anonymous source inside the PEPP program, goes on to say  “We all find it odd that our clinic (PEPP) was left off of the letter. I think residents in the area should know just what kind of clinic is moving into their area,” and further states “There’s such a stigma in mental health and not including PEPP on the announcement isn’t helping matters,” a staff member wrote in an e-mail to The Free Press.”   What is troubling here is the seemingly incongruous statements of “I think area residents should know just what kind of clinic is moving into the area” and then to discuss stigma “There’s such a stigma in mental health and not including PEPP on the announcement isn’t helping matters.” So we have a statement that residents should be warned and then a statement about the stigma for those with mental illnesses. A warning on the one hand and then the pointing to the damage of stigma on the other. 

The second article, which uses the same website address as the first, is headlined with “Neighbours cry foul at LHSC’s handling of possible move of psychoses program to residential area“ and again starts with the alarmist opening sentence, “A London hospital might move a program for those with schizophrenia and other psychoses into a residential neighbourhood.”  Very much like the first article, Mr.Sher has linked mental illness with the inference of danger moving into a residential neighbourhood. Much of the next several paragraphs are the same as the first article then we have the response from neighbours, “The lack of disclosure upset neighbours, who received notices from the hospital that made no mention of the psychoses program. Again the inference of some cover up of danger by not sharing this information with the neighbours. 

Both articles imply that mental illness is dangerous and the hospital is trying to cover up the move of PEPP and at the end of each article, the following poll appears. “Would you be upset if a program for people with psychotic disorders moved into your neighbourhood? “ I’m not sure The London Free Press could be any less ambiguous about the linking of those with a mental illness to causing disruption and danger to a neighbourhood. This insensitivity to those with mental illness leads to increased stigma and prejudice and is being amplified by the very large reach of our local newspaper.

I have no argument that LHSC should have been much more thoughtful about the potential move of these programs. They seem to have dropped the ball and it also seems to me that in this case there are some employees with an axe to grind about the program’s move and because they had that axe to grind they contacted The London Free Press. Fair enough, and so they should, but to then create the kind of connections the article did between implied danger and young adults with serious mental health issues is sensational, insensitive and unfeeling. If a diabetes program were to move into the neighbourhood would Mr. Sher be as compelled to shine the light of journalism on this issue? If the hospital hid plans to move a geriatric specialist  into the neighbourhood should we not also be worried?  All those old people are coming from somewhere and they’re coming to your neighbourhood! No, of course not, but in these articles this medical and physical illness is being ostracized for reasons I am having trouble understanding.

The lives of people with mental illnesses are hard enough without articles like these coming out and re-instilling false fears. We don’t need to be worried about the mentally ill living amongst us for indeed they already are and have always done so. Mr. Sher’s article has made it just that much harder for people with a mental illness, including those I love, to be accepted for who they are. I’m not sure why Mr. Sher reported this story with this slant but perhaps next time he covers mental health he could be a little less cavalier about linking mental illness with danger and perhaps a little more thoughtful about the impact this kind of writing has on our fellow Londoners with a mental illness. We could all learn a lesson here and exposing stigma and prejudice about mental illness is not only for Mental Health Day, in my house and in our community, it should be everyday. 

Our newspaper should better serve our community and not resort to this kind of sensational reporting. Most of the time it does this, but in the case of these two articles there is a lot of room for improvement. I hope that happens and I hope Mr. Sher pauses next time before increasing the prejudice and stigma of mental illness by linking it to cover ups and implied danger. Those with a mental illness and their families have enough of a burden already without the added weight of this kind of sensational reporting.

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Keeping up with the Joneses: Culture in London

playing with fire

In the debate about whether we should build a performing arts centre or not, there are some questions that need to be asked about its need and its purpose that seem to be glossed over. Before we go there, I need to fill you in a little about my background. I am here to confess that i worked as an arts professional for 17 years. Yes, it’s true friends, there is no denying that I was an artist. I have been a director, artistic director, theatre company founder and educator at the post secondary level. I have worked in opera, touring shows, music and I have given talks and performances for money. So I have some experience and an informed point of view about the power and perils of the arts.

Let’s start with the fact that in 2012 Culture brought in more than $500 million in GDP to London. Culture includes digital, libraries, education, sports, visual arts, written arts, radio, television, film, heritage, arts and heritage administrators and of course, the traditional performing arts. According to the Canada Council for the Arts there are “609,000 people, or 3.3% of the active population of Canada” employed as culture workers in Canada. A measly 257,000 people are employed by Canadian banks. In Ontario, according to a study by Hill Strategies Research, based upon the 2006 census, “With 56,900 artists, Ontario has nearly twice as many artists as any other province.” According to the Cultural Profile for London in 2011, there were 7,703 cultural jobs in the City of London. So culture is a powerful force for economic, social and cultural development in our country and province. So why then would I have questions about a performing arts centre with all this as proof about the benefit of investing in the arts?

Well friends, in order to understand my concerns we need to look around us and understand the lay of the land. We are two hours from Toronto with its wealth of big venue arts offerings. We are 40 minutes from one of the finest theatre festivals in the world in Stratford. We are two hours away from another world-class big venue theatre festival – The Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Also, when we look at our friends in Kitchener-Waterloo, Mississauga and other Ontario municipalities, we see many performing arts centres, each one costing those municipalities millions. So are we investing in this huge project because we need to keep up with the Joneses? Are we feeling inferior to Stratford or Toronto or Niagara and want to build this centre because “we’re as good as those places?”

In listening to the presentation by Murray Faulkner to the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee, he talked almost exclusively about music and little about any of the other performing arts. He talked about creating a hot-desking /co-working space. He talked about creating a black box space for dance and music as well as for community meetings. But in this presentation, and in all the talk about creating this performing arts centre, there are some key things that are not talked about that need to be. Like how can a community group afford to rent this space? How do new and emerging talents access use of this space? Isn’t this space, in building hot desks,  competing with other proposed or existing spaces like The Shared Space for Social Innovation or Hackerstudios or Kowork? Why does the only focus seem to be music? Aren’t there other performing arts like dance and theatre? How exactly are they to be included?

So you have some idea of the current costs of renting space for performance space, The McManus Theatre, the small theatre with 150 seats in the lower level of the Grand, charges $450/day for commercial use and $125/day for non-profits plus fees of about $20/hr for the technician. The main stage at the Grand costs $2,000/day. So how exactly are community organizations supposed to afford to use this proposed new performing arts space? 

The City of London’s current culture funding is $3 million for 2014. This includes everything from Museums to historical sites, Orchestra London, The Grand , The London Public Library, festivals and  a tiny part for individual artists. London receives $2,470 per assessed property as its portion of the municipal property tax and of this culture receives $20.31. Of note, the City of Windsor, which has had a harder time economically than London, in 2011 spent $3.86 per capita on culture as opposed to London’s $3.41 and Kitchener-Waterloo’s $4.75. So we could afford to invest more in culture in London given the benefits it brings in talent attraction and rotations, economic development and the return on investment. But it’s where we spend that I have a few suggestions and they do not include a new performing arts centre.

Large arts organizations are primarily programming for an older audience nationally, provincially and locally. This is unsustainable and in order for culture to be relevant to a new demographic we have to have a conversation that develops programming that is relevant to Gen X and Gen Y. In order to do that, we must create opportunities for emerging artists and culture workers to develop their craft and the spaces in which to do this. I suggest that if we want to seriously invest in culture in London, we should invest in the following:

  1. A cultural conversation with the Gen X and Gen Y demographic to asses their interests and subsequent programming that meets that interest
  2. Affordable performance space – space that seats between 40 and 150 people in multiple locations
  3. Affordable studio space – space that is very inexpensive for digital and visual artists to rent
  4. Affordable multi-use rehearsal space – space that is very inexpensive and can meet the needs of multiple disciplines to rehearse.
  5. More funding for small arts organizations and individual artists – $200,000/year for five years
  6. Sustainable funding for The London Fringe Festival – many new works are developed and presented here as well as at the Nuit Blanche Festival.
  7. Funding for current large culture institutions that allows for lower cost access for new and emerging artists
  8. Investment in developing cultural management talent
  9. Investment  in and easy access to public outdoor space use in downtown – squares and public spaces with programmed arts
  10. Further investment in the London Artist in Residence program – this places artists in schools as a resource for teaching every subject
  11. Investment in heritage programming and awareness
  12. Increased staff funding for London Arts and Heritage Councils

If you took half of the proposed ask for the performing arts centre and used it in these areas, the result for London culture would be transformative and lasting and would be a huge boost to attracting and retaining talent and increasing opportunities for economic development. We  should be concerned about creating venues and spaces like Toronto, Stratford, Shaw, or Kitchener-Waterloo, until we create the infrastructure to support and develop our local cultural talent here in London. 

So no, I do not want to see spending on a huge performing arts centre. i want to see it spent on new and emerging talent and on the institutions that can support their growth and development.  Any city can build a building, but not many are committed to creating a new, dynamic and growing culture scene. If Council is serious about modelling ourselves on places like Austin and South by South West then this is where we need to spend. Not on another outdated and overextended idea of what culture used to be in the 70s.

It’s a little confusing right now: Provincial Election

Well the wondering and prognosticating is finally over friends. We’re going to an election on June 12th and while some may have made up their minds as to who they’re voting for my suspicion is most have not. How can this be you ask? Aren’t the Liberals scandal ridden? Well lets look at that and look at our own culpability in this confusing time.

Tim Hudak and Andrea Horwath have, on the surface at least, decided not to support Kathleen Wynne’s government because of principle. They can not longer in good faith work with a minority government that is mired in scandal ( code for gas plant,Orange, E-health, Herb Grey Parkway ) and support a government is covering up important information ( code for gas plant) . Now our friend Tim Hudak would tell you that he wants to hang an open for business sign on Ontario ( code for tax cuts for corporation ) and to get our spending under control ( code for cutting social programs ) . Andrea Howarth would have you believe that she can no longer let this Government continue on because Ontarians have lost faith in them and the Liberals plans are unattainable. But Andrea Howrath did sit in Queens Park and held her nose while two budgets went sailing by despite the scandals she keeps referring too.

We can’t deny however that Dalton McGuinty left a huge mess behind and we did as a province lose a billion dollars on the gas plants and lets not forget E-Health or Orange either. Both left a sour taste in the mouths of us all. So where does this leave us when it comes to Kathleen Wynne? Were any of these scandal her fault? Was she involved at all? Well it would be difficult to believe a Cabinet Minister had no knowledge of any of these issues but it’s not really clear what her involvement was. So we’re left with a lot of murky water right now around our new Premiere.

If you believe AM radio then the Liberal ( or NDP or Green (or any “lefty”)) are not to be believed and that if we do then you’re a fool. Listening to CBC radio however on the drive up to Kingston on Friday there we’re as many NDP as there were Liberals as there were Conservatives who called in and the vast majority said they didn’t know who they were going to vote for. Many said they wish that these parties could work together to get Ontario back on track. I think both of these are on the minds of Ontarian’s right now and given the lack of cooperation, or even civility,it’s a confusing picture and  people don’t know which way to vote.

I’ll be honest friends I have never been a fan of the austerity agenda of the conservatives. It’s never made much sense to cut spending on the one hand and to then cut taxes for large corporations, or the wealthy, as well. This is like saying if i owned a business and i wanted to increase profit I would give a bigger discount while cutting the costs to the maintenance and advertising for my business. Makes no sense. The current form of Thatcher/Reagan conservative thinking is so old and so dated and limited that until we see a reinvention of the conservative movement it holds no water. I hope that reinvention happens.

The NDP and the Liberals are at least saying we need to invest in education, transportation, health and these things cost money. Want high-speed trains? You’ll pay more in taxes. Want more money for the disadvantaged? You’ll pay more in taxes. Want more youth job funding? You’ll pay more in taxes. I like that. Like being told that we need to invest and that investment will cost and won’t suddenly appear at the end of the rainbow. It makes sense.

Locally we have some great people running for all four parties. Deb Matthews, Nancy Branscombe, Judy Bryant, Jeff Bennet, Peggy Sattler, Gary Brown, Teresa Armstrong. All great Londoners who you should all take sometime to talk to. But they will all be swept up in this election and the orders of the party. You see local candidates don’t have much to say on platform or even if they agree with the whole platform. If the party says you don’t do debate then you don’t do debates. If the party says start attacking the leader and the candidate then you start attacking. You become the local labourer for the bossman/woman of the party. You do but you don’t get to say much tat is your own. This is also too bad.

All the parties will attack while promising you they are the only choice and that if you want a prosperous future then you have to vote for them. But as I said earlier I believe many in this province are looking for more cooperation, much more civility. honesty in what we need to pay for, and most importantly we don’t want to be wined and dined during the election to be left wondering a week after  why they never call.

In the end though we need to examine our own culpability in all this and the way we do politics in Ontario. After all our current political climate would not be the way it is if we told politicians they couldn’t behave this way. That we will not stand for the vicious partisanship of party politics. That we will not stand for crass behaviour from those that lead us. That we will not stand for the lack of cooperation at Queens Park. But we won’t do this. We won’t do this and we will see another election come and go and the same dance begin again.

So in this confusing time of confusing choice take some time, do the best you can, vote, and try to at least say to your candidates to be civil, try to cooperate, so we can build a better Ontario. In the meantime let’s do that for each other as well.