PhD conference prize for James Balfour

I am honoured to have received the award for “student research with the most potential for impact” at the 2020 Corpora and Discourse International conference this year. The award, which included a prize of £150, was sponsored by Palgrave and decided through nominations from conference attendees. The talk can be accessed online here: https://corporadiscourse.com/healthcare-representations-videos/

The findings are part of a larger project examining how people with schizophrenia are portrayed in British newspapers. While symptoms of schizophrenia, which include auditory and visual hallucinations (e.g. ‘hearing voices’), affect roughly 1 in 100 people, most of the general public obtain all their understanding of the disorder from the media. This is because most people are unlikely to have first-hand experiences of people with the disorder. After all, people with mental illnesses are not visually identifiable (in the way people with some physical disabilities are) and, as a consequence, no one could identify someone with schizophrenia from just the way they look. Moreover, another symptom people with schizophrenia often experience is social withdrawal, which means that some people diagnosed with the disorder may avoid contact with others. It is therefore crucial that the media provides accurate and tolerant portrayals of people with schizophrenia so that the general public can understand the disorder and are encouraged to treat people with the disorder with respect and compassion.

My talk focussed on differences between the language used to represent people with schizophrenia in the British tabloids and broadsheets. To compare differences, I identified words which were significantly more frequent in either dataset relative to the other. This identified words which were distinctive to either the tabloids or broadsheets reportage on schizophrenia. What I found was that these words converged around a distinctive topic for each dataset. In the tabloids, this distinctive topic was “crime”. These words referred to the sentencing and imprisonment of criminals with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, or the risks posed deinstitutionalising patients from hospital. Hence, a distinctive feature of the reporting in the tabloids was the tendency to represent people with schizophrenia as dangerous. For instance, the following example from The Star reports a story where a patient with schizophrenia has been deinstitutionalised.

BLUNDERS FREED KILLER FROM MENTAL HOSPITAL. A SERIES of errors left a crazed killer at large to stab to death a hero detective. (The Star, 20 May 2005).

Notice how the individual is referred to twice as a killer, which reduces the identity of the individual to their crime. Other aspects of the patient’s identity and their circumstances – noticeably the patient’s own mental distress – are left unmentioned. Instead, he is referred to as crazed, which is a simplistic and dismissive representation of his mental health issues. The fact that he is represented as a killer even before reference is made to his crime even seems to mislead us into thinking that he had committed murder before being deinstitutionalised, which was not the case.

Instead, a distinctive topic in the broadsheets was “art and culture”. These words occur in stories in where a link is posited between psychosis and creativity. For instance, in the following excerpt from The Telegraph, the Victorian painter Richard Dadd is praised for offering in his work a representation of what the journalist paradoxically calls a genuine manic fantasy, which is contrasted with the lets-pretend of contemporary artists who do not experience psychosis. This suggests that Dadd’s paintings are more valuable than those of other artists because they provide insights into an unusual sensory experience.

Oberon and Titania (1854/58) by the schizophrenic Richard Dadd offers genuine manic fantasy, as opposed to the tiresome let’s-pretend of so much of the art of his contemporaries. (The Telegraph, 21 September 2003).

Linking schizophrenia with creativity is part of a much broader stereotype whereby people with health issues are viewed as gifted in a particular enterprise. A more obvious example of this is the stereotypical association between autism and mathematical prowess. These representations, while being more positive, may lead people to have expectations of people with schizophrenia than they are likely unable to or do not want to meet.

A distinctive feature of both tabloids and broadsheets, therefore, is to represent people with schizophrenia as different – as undesirably different and desirably different, respectively. However, most people with schizophrenia are neither dangerous criminals nor talented artists but normal people trying to live their lives. While it is understandable that the press likes to report on unusual people, this inevitably leads to a distorted picture of people with schizophrenia which exacerbates misunderstandings and prejudiced beliefs. Life can be difficult for people diagnosed with schizophrenia already without them having to face the additional problem of being burdened with inaccurate expectations reproduced by the media. Using findings like these, the project looks to working closely with journalists and charities to make the language we use around schizophrenia more accurate and tolerant.

For more details about this project see: http://cass.lancs.ac.uk/author/james-balfour/ If you have any questions or observations, please contact me via j.balfour@lancaster.ac.uk