August 27, 2010

In the last few days we have been part of a media debate about Shirlena, the X Factor contestant who has been pulled from the show because she has a mental health problem.

This was sparked off by a story in the Sun on Tuesday 25 August, which suggested Shirlena was a 'ticking timebomb' and a 'risk to her child' - without any real evidence of what her mental health problem was, if indeed she had one. But throughout the week we have helped to influence a U-turn in reporting that could be a sign that the views of people with mental health problems are getting heard.

Our Facebook page is a barometer for us to see what our supporters think about stories like this and the original article caused an outcry, with comments like:

"When I saw the Sun article I was devastated that people might think having a mental illness stops you being a good parent."

"I have mental health needs...I've also spoken to the UN on Women's Rights before. With the right support, I thrive under pressure...she may be the same or totally different but to judge her without knowing is just horrid."

After we expressed our concerns to the Sun, Wednesday's edition showed a change of tone, with a much more sympathetic approach and the inference that Shirlena might not be a capable parent being dropped. A quote from us was included, expressing our view that just because people have a mental health problem we should not assume they're not able to take part in the X Factor - or cope with any other pressurised situation.

By Thursday the turnaround was dramatic: the paper featured an extensive, sensitive interview with Shirlena who put her side of the story forward and I contributed a comment which ran alongside the piece. Shirlena was quoted saying:

"One in four British adults suffers from a mental illness. So do lots of famous people - there shouldn't be a stigma attached. This is why people hide mental illnesses and don't get help...Do people with any history of mental illness just have to stay where they are?"

And today's paper (Friday 27 August) sees the Sun actively fighting Shirlena's corner, highlighting that 70% of readers want her to be allowed back in the show and featuring numerous supportive comments from readers arguing that people shouldn't be discriminated against on the grounds of mental illness.

Does this suggest that the media, and the Sun in particular, is more willing to listen to people with mental health problems, and to realise that negative, sensationalist stereotypes are out of touch with reality? For us this kind of turnaround is a really encouraging indication that times might be a-changing. It's great to be able to show our supporters that together, by putting our views forward, we can have an impact - and that, to their credit, the Sun has listened.

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