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Mental health consumers, advocates call for Four Corners apology

Introduction by Croakey: Nearly 300 mental health consumers and allies across mental health disciplines have signed a letter calling on the ABC to apologise for its recent Four Corners TV episode, “Please don’t judge us”, which the program flagged as investigating “violent crime and the mentally ill”.

The letter, signed by leading mental health consumer advocates and academics, says the story has caused “harm, grief and sadness” and risked exacerbating stigma and discrimination.

They say the program failed to interview a single person with lived experience of mental health issues, reinforced sensationalist stereotypes, and overlooked the complexity in changes needed from the system, including recognition of the harms experienced by many consumers through treatment and medication.

The letter is published in full below, or can be accessed here.

The Four Corners episode focuses on the graphic accounts and experiences of a number of families whose loved ones have committed a violent crime while suffering a severe mental health crisis. An undated editor’s note at the bottom of the episode’s webpage says:

Four Corners notes that cases such as these are extremely rare, and people with a mental illness are far more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violent crimes.”

One of the mental health specialists in the program commented on the risk of stigmatising the “wider group of people with mental illness….who are not violent or dangerous”, but this and the greater risk of people with mental health issues to be victims of violence were not a focus of the investigation.

Coakey readers can also watch this video statement from leading mental health consumer, author and advocate Sandy Jeffs, who was issued a Medal of the Order of Australia this year. She says the program risks “untold damage” to people with schizophrenia who were “demonised” by its approach, even if it had hoped to expose the failings of the mental health system.

A number of other mental health organisations have issued statements about the program, including Consumers of Mental Health WA, the Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council (VMIAC), BEING – Mental Health Consumers, and SANE Australia.

Croakey readers might also be interested to read Mindframe’s guidelines for media reporting on mental health and suicide.

UPDATE (4 September): The ABC News Communications Lead Sally Jackson published this statement earlier this week in response to the concerns and complaints from consumers about the way the program dealt with the issue.

Please see also a comment to Croakey, at the bottom of the post, from one of the participants in the program, who defended the broadcast, saying it was highlighting “the broken mental health system in Australia” and how it failed her family and others.


Open Letter to the ABC

Dear ABC,

We are compelled to write to you about your recent Four Corners TV episode,  “Please don’t judge us”.

This letter is written by people with lived experience, consumers and/or survivors of the mental health system. You may not be aware of us, since not one of us was interviewed in your program. It was as though you thought that we are not quite human, that we cannot speak for ourselves.

We can see that you wanted to produce an episode which bravely tackled issues in the mental health system. We suspect you wanted to make an important societal contribution to people and families who need help. There is no doubt that mental and emotional distress affects everyone, and that carers and families can live through very difficult times as they try to find a way to help for their family member.

But we need you to know that you have failed. Badly. 

Your story has caused harm, grief and sadness. You have just made stigma and discrimination worse for thousands of Australians like us. You have stolen and silenced our voice. And you have promoted psychiatric practices and a system in which many people experience institutional violence, abuse, and inhumane treatment (see below in item 3).

So, we’d like you to know why you got it wrong. Then we ask you to take action to make up for the damage that you have wrought, and to be true to:

  • Your charter to serve the public interest
  • Your editorial policy to include a diversity of perspectives
  • Your editorial policy to avoid the use of stereotypes and discriminatory content that could reasonably be interpreted as condoning or encouraging prejudice.

From our perspective, you made three grave errors.

  1. We are overwhelmingly not violent – more commonly we are victims of violence and trauma. Yet you reinforced sensationalist stereotypes that we are dangerous, scary people.

Your production positioned us as people to be feared. As demonised, violent, dangerous, unpredictable ‘others’. This is a clear stereotype. We only account for 4-5% of violent crime in Australia, and even then, this is often not due to mental illness, but factors common to violence committed by anyone.

Your focus on violence was reminiscent of media coverage which vilifies other classes of people. Like media that blames violence on so-called ‘African gangs’. Or media that blames Muslim people for terrorism. Another ABC story critiqued this kind of blaming, “lazy shorthand” in media reporting on “African gangs”. For us, too, this “lazy shorthand” does nothing but promote fear and hate, while avoiding the uncomfortable truth about violence: it is complicated, and it is not the fault of any particular group of people.

The sad truth about violence and mental distress is the opposite of what you proposed. While very few of us are violent, a great majority of us, 80% or more, have been victims of violence. That’s often why we end up in distress and crisis. Violence is far more often a cause of mental health problems, not a consequence of them.

  1. It is unacceptable to produce stories about us, that exclude our voice.

You would not produce a story on women that only interviewed men. You would not produce a story on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people without interviewing them. Well, we certainly hope not. So why on earth would you produce a story about us, that only interviewed carers, families and psychiatrists?

Perhaps you don’t know that we are capable of speaking for ourselves, and that many of us work as active agents of change throughout the mental health system and society. As academics, peer workers, advocates, policy advisers and educators. We have peak bodies in most states. We are also parents, artists, writers, and sometimes even quite ordinary, boring people. Some of us even work for the ABC!

Perhaps you do not know that many of us experience recovery and healing. Even those of us diagnosed with ‘schizophrenia’ and ‘psychosis’. Perhaps you may be surprised to hear that many of us even recover and heal without psychiatry and medication.

It is important that carers and families have a voice to talk about their own needs and issues. But they cannot, and do not, speak for us – they speak for themselves. A properly critical investigative story would have understood and appreciated these different vantage points.

  1. More hospital beds and medication are NOT what we want or need.

It is no surprise when psychiatrists call for more funding. Every industry group does that. It is no surprise that carers and families call for us to be hospitalised and medicated, because they are scared for us and they don’t know what else to do.

But we’ve lived through hospitals and medication. What’s more, we’ve lived through recovery and healing, so we know what works. Sure, hospitals and medication are helpful for some of us. But for a great many, psychiatric medications are ineffective and the evidence shows that they can be seriously harmful and impact mortality. There is no simple or magic fix here.

Psychiatric hospitals are places where many of us experience profound institutional violence and human rights violations; think youth detention centres, or mandatory detention of asylum seekers. Robust professional journalistic investigation, with ‘balance and perspective’, would have unearthed this very quickly.

We agree that changes are desperately needed in how we respond to mental and emotional distress, but it is simplistic and dangerous to assume this means more beds and more meds. The changes needed are complex, and we have lots of ideas about them – but they must be grounded in human rights, choice, and our voices.

We want an acknowledgement, apology, and an opportunity to be heard

Your TV episode has done serious harm to us as individuals, and as a community of people who experience the mental health system. Too often, we lose friends and family who are frightened by reporting like yours. And yet there are claims for more inclusion. Sadly your reporting was divisive.

Now, we risk losing even more human connection, face more discrimination, and perhaps we are even be more likely to be detained and forcibly medicated against our will. In terms of harm done, plenty; in terms of good done, it is hard to see any potentially helpful outcomes from your story.

This undermines our human rights and our humanity, and it demands redress.

We call on you to:

  • Publicly acknowledge the serious failings in this episode and apologise. You failed to speak with us, the actual people you were talking about. And you misrepresented us in a harmful way.
  • Produce a different kind of show, where you hear from us. Introduce your viewers to the psychiatric consumer/survivor human rights movement, lived experience workers and activists, and the innovative and critical work we are doing to transform mental health, here and overseas. In giving us voice about our own lives, perhaps we can begin to undo some of the harm you have done.

We want you to understand that, as a class of people, we face profound levels of discrimination, hate, violence and silencing of our voice – and you have contributed to this.

We know that Four Corners and the ABC can do, and has done, outstandingly ethical investigative reporting, despite the failures of this episode. We need you, as our national broadcaster, to be our allies for change, not part of what hurts and excludes us.

Yours sincerely,

We, the undersigned, are all people with a lived experience, consumers and/or survivors of the mental health system.

Paula Arro, Chair, Brisbane North Peer Participation in Mental Health Services Network

Matt Ball

Nicky Bright

Robyn Callaghan

Deb Carlon

Bianca Childs

Indigo Daya, Survivor academic, activist and consultant

Vrinda Edan

Rebecca Egan

Heidi Everett

Shauna Gaebler

Flick Grey, Lived experience workforce trainer, supervisor & consultant

Tim Heffernan

Ellie Hodges

Fay Jackson, General Manager, Inclusion

Sandy Jeffs

Hamilton Kennedy

Phoebe Kingston, Consumer Activist

Eila Lyon

Lyn Mahboub

Laura McWhae

Leah McKenner

Joanne Newman

Rachel Oliver

Rory Randall

Ailsa Rayner, BPsych

Helena Roennfeldt

Cath Roper

Dave Peters

Aimee Sinclair

Brooke Starr

Trish Tran

Amanda Waegeli

Terry Warner

As allies and supporters of mental health consumers/survivors, we offer our support and endorsement to this open letter:

Paul Armitage

Associate Professor Susan Ainsworth

John Bamborough, General Manager Supported Independent Living Victoria, Mind Australia

Scientia Professor Jill Bennett, ARC Laureate Fellow, UNSW

Carla Clarence

Lorna Downes

Assoc Prof Bridget Hamilton, Director, Centre for Psychiatric Nursing

Erandathie Jayakody

Professor Jon Jureidini, Critical & Ethical Mental Health Research Group, University of Adelaide

Rebecca Jury

Simon Katterl

Professor Renata Kokanovic, Social and Global Studies Centre, RMIT University

Kerry Hawkins, Commissioner and President, WA Association for Mental Health

Dr Diana Johns, University of Melbourne

Dr Claire Loughnan, University of Melbourne

Dr Chris Maylea, RMIT

Dr Melissa Raven, University of Adelaide

Dr Kath Sellick, University of Melbourne

Dr Linda Steele, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Technology Sydney

(Many others have signed the Open Letter online).

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Comments 4

  1. Gina says:

    I thank 4 corners for telling my story !
    This program was about our family’s struggle getting our sick loved one help ! It wasn’t directed at people with mental illness ! It was our experience with the mental health system . I’m quite shocked that you have turned this episode into a negative ! This was OUR story , family’s all around Australia and unfortunately our story’s were tragic . The public need to know how broken our system is , if it was working my loved one would be home with me right now and a life wouldn’t of been lost . My loved ones mental health deteriorated over 10 weeks , we had no experience with mental illness we didn’t know what was going on and when we reach out to these SO called mental health services all we heard time and time again was they needed to come in and ask for help himself that was impossible . Tell me when someone is having there first phycotic episode if mental health service fail and even a local hospital discharge your loved one without help , then what do you suggest we do???? My loved ones mental health escalated into a crisis , if I could of gotten him The help he needed he wouldn’t of ended up in a phycosis. The episode was highlighting the broken mental health system in Australia and how it failed US! Why are you turning it into a negative ? We want the system to change , it’s been ignored for far too long ! If my loved one was helped by the so called mental health services he wouldn’t be in jail for murder even tho all the evidence pointed to an accident! So that’s why my loved one cannot speak for himself because he can’t , I am his voice ! he doesn’t want what happened to him happen to anybody else there has to be more help for family’s and sick loved ones !!! Isn’t that fair enough ? Please don’t judge or comment if you haven’t been through what our family’s have faced . It was hard enough we had to go in tv and tell our story We did this to achieve some change in the system. 4 corners covered our story with grace and sensitivity and I give them a pat on the back ! I only got to tell part of my story there was soo much more . I even called all the advertised mental help lines and guess what they couldn’t help us either !

    • Gina says:

      I’m deeply hurt and upset by your comments on the 4 corners episode! I’m in shock that you have twisted what the episode was truely about ! You sit there and judge our family’s story, we go out on a limb to help change the system and you thrown it all back in our face ! Not once did we mention more hospital beds or medication, the system is broken can’t you see that ? Have you been through what we have been through and With the justice department? Did your loved one get thrown in jail while he was sick with no treatment or help ? Stigma ? No , telling our truthful story’s .

  2. Harold A Maio says:

    —–the program flagged as investigating “violent crime and the mentally ill”.

    “The” mentally ill? Curious that we cling to that form. As “the” Blacks, it continues to influence a great many. One ought eschew both.

    —–people with a mental illness are far more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violent crimes

    As are people without a mental illness, as are journalists, state employees, editors, professors. It is a truism.

  3. As a carer advocate I applaud the Four Corners program, “Don’t Judge Us” for courageously wading into a political minefield. I respect the bravery of carers who, perhaps for a first time, had opportunity to speak publicly of the systemic barriers to care and its adverse consequences for a loved one with severe mental illness. For once the everyday trauma experienced particularly by these carers are made visible and visual for public attention. Whose interests are served by the many who objected to this expose? Certainly such attitudes reveal a lack of awareness of what it is truly like being a full-time career of someone withan acute and ongoing mental illness..

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