Observer cartoon crosses line from accurate, responsible journalism.

Posted: Wednesday, Apr. 08, 2009

From George E. Reynolds Jr., a member of the boards of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Moore County in Pinehurst and the Sandhills Center for Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities & Substance Abuse Services in Seven Lakes:

This article is in response to the outrageous editorial cartoon by Kevin Siers published in the Charlotte Observer on April 2.

The cartoon depicts a man holding a rifle across his chest. The words “Easy GUN Access” are on the stock and a large lighted match is coming out of the barrel.

The flame from the end of the match is lighting a fuse coming out of the man’s head, which is shaped like a bomb. The words on the bomb say “Mental Illness.” The title of the cartoon on is “Local Terrorist” and a caption within the cartoon says “American Suicide Bomber.”

My perception is that this cartoon refers to the tragedy at the Pinelake Nursing Home in Carthage March 29. There’s no evidence that the assailant was ever diagnosed with a mental illness. Even if he was, there’s no justification for this cartoon.

A false inference

This cartoon is hurtful and insensitive to those with family members or friends that suffer with a brain disease. It is false to infer that everyone who suffers from a severe, persistent mental illness is a “Local Terrorist” and an “American Suicide Bomber.” The Observer and Siers crossed the line from responsible journalism.

The way people with mental illness are treated is terrible. It’s based on a lack of education, understanding and empathy and leads to discrimination in how they are treated by the media, the public and in jails, prisons and hospitals.

Unfortunately, there is an enormous stigma associated with mental illness. A lot of that is generated by the way the media reports the many tragedies that involve people with or without a mental illness who commit horrendous crimes. You can see this in the tragic headlines about people who commit such crimes, the editorial cartoons, the jokes on TV and movies’ portrayal of the mentally ill in a humorous way.

This is not a problem for other diseases. If any other class of people were treated this way there would be a public outcry. However, when it comes to people who suffer with brain diseases, all you can hear is the fear and laughter. Real stories about real mental health issues can help.

Be an advocate

The Charlotte Observer and other media can be a powerful advocate for the mentally ill, ensuring that mental health reform actually provides people with a better quality of life, not just another dumping ground. They can help to generate the necessary commitment of resources, locally and nationally, to ensure the safety and well being of people suffering with mental illnesses. Brain diseases can be controlled and in some cases cured with the proper treatment and support.

The Charlotte Observer has helped set back the gains made in confronting a hurtful public stigma. The Observer’s editorial board owes the public – and those who suffer mental illness – an apology.

Feedback offers persons or groups criticized in Observer editorials, columns or news stories an opportunity to respond.

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