Friday, May 25, 2012

The media's Vince Li fear campaign claims first victim: the rest of us

In the past week, Winnipeg has witnessed the worst example of journalism possible. At least for as long as I've been publishing on this website.

*Comments are closed. I have had enough hatred directed at me as it is, and it is affecting my own mental health. People fear what they do not know, which explains why they placate those fears with more fear, instead of knowledge. Ignorance is not bliss*

Instead of doing actual journalism work on the subject of schizophrenia and the stigmas associated with mental illness, the media at large chose to play up the fear factor. Plastered frequently on front pages and top-of-the-hour newscasts, was the mother of Tim Mclean, who has become a symbol of "it could happen to YOUR kid" that resonates with just about everyone. The very way in which mentally ill people are treated has been questioned, the psychiatry and medical communities scoffed at by the general public.

The fear campaign of non-journalism by the media has succeeded. It has unravelled any anti-stigma gains that have been made. And now there is a victim. In the mental health community of course, and a facet of that community in which I am an active member of, the arts community.

Founder of the Mental Arts Initiative, Elizabeth Hibbert, applied for a permit in Winnipeg Beach on Wednesday for an outdoor art gallery for people with mental illnesses. The purpose of this gallery is for the artists to interact with the public and reduce stigma surrounding illnesses.

Winnipeg Beach council stayed the decision for two weeks to "see about the town's right to restrict certain mentally ill people from the community."

Winnipeg Beach council has, just by their action to stay the decision, supported stigma, and bought into the fear campaign centered around Vince Li.

Four years ago, before the Greyhound Bus incident, the public did not en masse, live in fear of the 300 000 Canadians living with schizophrenia. Four years ago, the council would have okay'd this application with no opposition. Sure, great, open an art gallery. That's wonderful. We support the arts, we support the community, we support mental health initiatives, everything is peachy.

Now, because of the immeasureably irresponsible journalism practices exhibited in the past week, Winnipeg Beach council would rather treat people with illness with fear and prejudice rather than with support. I will leave aside the obvious issues with the town's belief of their "right" to choose which free Canadians can come into their community and which ones can't. For today.

By and large, people's illnesses go undetected and are invisible. You'd never notice. Partially because the illness is rare enough that few witness an untreated schizophrenic person (and nearly all cases do not become public sensations), partially because people living with mental illness are ashamed of themselves to the point that they do not leave their houses or interact with the outside world. Few people talk about it, most hide what they experience.

Winnipeg Beach Council, just like the media and so-called 'journalism' outlets, could have taken a leadership role on this. They could have stood up for the rights of people with mental illnesses. They could have said, yes, we support this art gallery, and recognize that reaction to Vince Li is bathed in ignorance and fear (mostly because of the aforementioned media), we know better, and we know that our community won't be at risk because of a little art gallery.

But now, the media, and Winnipeg Beach, have collectively punished all people with mental illnesses, without even having made a decision. A person like myself who lives with mental health issues and is an artist, is apparently now, a threat, or some sort of risk. As are my colleagues. To prejudice mentally ill people like this is outrageous and despicable. We are not sociopathic criminals, which is what conventional wisdom seems to be at this point.

Lest I start naming the countless artists over the course of human history who lived with and produced some of the most revered art of all time, I will invite you to a documentary being screened on Monday, May 28, at 6pm at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Called "Out of Mind," it is a documentary about the mental health community and art. I am one of a few artists in the film.

The event is free. The Winnipeg Art Gallery will not be taking precautions, nor will they have increased security on site for the event.

I will be interviewing Liz Hibbert and will include her comments, as well as an extensive analysis of media coverage, in the coming days.

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