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Stopping Stigma

02/22/2012

A professor with MCLA's English/communications department since 2002, Dr. Michael Birch found no textbook covered the information he wished to impart to students in his "Film Mediations about Mental Health" class. So, he wrote the book himself, based on his years of personal study and on the work of others in the United Kingdom and the United States.

"Mediating Mental Health: Contexts, Debates and Analysis," aims to improve media representations of mental health. It offers a detailed, critical analysis of media representations, looking across genre forms. Through an examination of film, television and radio, media constructions of mental health identity are analyzed, along with language in representations.

"The problem of media representations regarding mental health is now a global issue as health agencies express concern about produced stigma and its outcomes, specifically social exclusion," Birch said.

He wrote the book not only for his students, but also for media professionals, mental healthcare professionals, those who have experienced a mental health condition, scholars of media and cultural studies, sociologists, and those interested in media representations of marginalized cultural groups.

Originally from Liverpool, England, Birch noted, "In the United States, 77 million will experience mental health issues; that's one in four people. In the U.K., this statistic is the same and by 2020, unipolar depression will be the second most common disease on the planet. I want future reporters to be better informed and to avoid communicating the damaging impact of stigma."

Students in his class learn that stigma is a problematic part of society for many minorities, which, if goes unchecked, can lead people with mental health conditions to self exclusion from society.

"When over 60 million people in the U.S. will suffer from some form of mental health condition - with anxiety and depression the most common - the reduction of stigmas around this issue is needed," Birch said.

Birch allows his students to take a critical look at how ideas about mental health primarily have been associated with blurred concepts connected with "madness," as depicted in horror films.

"Many of these meanings go unchecked across history," he said. "Students also find that genre is a key and important communicative element in directing them as individuals and as collective audiences on how to read mediations - whether they be found in the news, in films or on Web sites."

Birch's students not only discover that change can take place, they also learn that respect and improved language used to describe and talk about mental health is important in denying stigma.

"I think students were gripped by some sections of the book, especially in that the work seeks to do something about a societal problem which the media can exacerbate," Birch said. "The study does not simply report about a problem, but actually tries to do something about it, which they thought was good.

"Also, some had never understood that such a problem existed. But now, knowing this information, they were more concerned about it."

Structured in two phases, the book's first phase analyses film, television, radio and a cartoon, looking a differences in meanings between factual and fictional forms. The second phase is split into two sections: The first part looks at how mental healthcare professionals, media professionals and people with conditions read different meanings from the same four television and radio examples; the second section looks at new media images made about mental health, by people with conditions. Findings from both study phases provide indicators toward improvement in mediations.

"Mediating Mental Health" is published by Ashgate Publishing of Williston, Vt.  It available as a book and an ebook at www.ashgate.com.