A Toronto professor has weighed in on the stigmas associated with how the police and media portray people who have or are suspected of having mental health issues

Early in the morning of October 15, Toronto Police released a photo of a dangerous-looking young man who they said was an "elopee," meaning a patient absent without leave, from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). 

Narcity, along with most other media in the city, ran stories with that threatening picture.

Narcity spoke to University of Toronto professor Bonnie Kirsh, who specializes in the stigmas associated with mental illness at the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, about how police and media can do better when reporting on people with mental health issues. 

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Did the tweet by police play into a negative stereotype?

"I think it did not portray the idea that this man was in need of help, and instead there was the messaging that this person is to be feared," said professor Bonnie Kirsh. 

Kirsh said the original image, a picture that made the missing person seem threatening, didn't help matters.

Though police originally referred to him as an elopee, there has been no confirmation that Sabian Mark Delong has any mental health challenges.

Police spokesperson Constable Laura Brabant told Narcity that they tweet out whatever image the investigating officer finds first, whether it's from the family, or an image already in their files.

When the news is of immediate public interest, it's that image that goes out. That's why initial images are so often mug shots; it's what the cops have on hand.

This has been an issue, not only with cases of people suspected of having mental health challenges, but with racialized people as well.

What are the issues when a person who may have mental health issues is missing in the city?

Kirsh stresses that though most psychiatric units are not locked, some people are held in what she called "forensic units" and cannot leave without permission.

But Kirsh says the most important thing is to remember that, whether there is a potential danger to the public or not, this person is themselves by definition in need of help. "They need support," Kirsh says, "they need treatment."

Especially where, as in this case, suicidal thoughts may be an issue.

"We really need to be looking at suicide with sensitivity and concern and it was sort of embedded in this frightful message," Kirsh says, referring to a tweet found on the account of a person with the same name, age, and hometown of the missing person. "So that was an issue of self harm, not harm to others."

How can conversations about people who may have mental health issues be more sensitive?

"When you're putting messaging into the media there are some basic ideas that are important to adhere to," Kirsh says.

"One is to never refer to the person by their diagnosis," she says, such as calling someone a schizophrenic, "but to refer to them as a person. You want to make sure that you're talking about the person as a person, and as a person in need of help and support.

"Even when there is a risk to the public," she says, as the police said there was in this case, "there are ways of talking about it without just scaring people."

"Actually," Kirsh says, "levels of violence amongst people with mental health problems are lower than amongst the general public."

This article has been updated.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with thoughts of harming themselves, please reach out to a trusted peer, parent or health care professional. You can also contact a helpline which is available 24-hours a day to talk. Or click here, for additional support resources.

If you need immediate assistance please call 9-1-1 or go to your nearest hospital.

Support is available.

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