Mental health column, community organizer’s death put focus on words we use – Mark Schultz

Two posts on my Facebook page linking to recent stories at www.heraldsun.com highlighted the power of the words we use.

On July 27, I wrote this post after a guest column, “Learn how to live with mental illness from those who’ve been there,” about the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Family to Family education program:

On mental illness and language: I took this course a few years back for people with family members who have mental illness. I found it helpful. After we printed this column from Nancy Brickman, however, reader Harold Maio wrote in to say each time we publish phrases like “the stigma surrounding mental illness” we reinforce it. “You may call it that. We did so once for rape,” he writes. “As it damaged then, so it damages now. ... What you intend to say is there are people who direct that prejudice, and it hurts. Instead you do so yourself and it hurts. It is a common practice.” ... Is Maio, a retired editor, right?

Reader Jon Wilner replied: “Harold Maio is correct, even though the writer may have meant well. However the content really serves a rarely recognized need. Mental illness is a family disease (like cancer, addiction, heart health, and on), which can devastate a family. I have seen this happen and the entire family, even a close, loving one, is torn apart. The more we talk about the issue, the more common it becomes, the greater the chance for relief, recovery and, perhaps a cure.”

By the way, For information on upcoming Family-to-Family classes, contact Nancy Brickman, NAMI Orange Family-to-Family coordinator, nbrickman@nc.rr.com 919-818-8065 or Violette Blumenthal, NAMI Durham, vibl46@frontier.com, 919-358- 6788. A Spanish language class will be offered soon.

On July 18, I wrote this post after we reported the death of Durham community organizer Umar Muhammad:

“Ex-cons”: A lesson in language – When news broke late Monday that Umar Muhammad had died, staff writer Virginia Bridges, working sick from home, called about a possible story. We don’t write about every notable person who dies, but the news was spreading and Virginia knew many would care about this story. Her next question was when? People were just learning he had died; would people want to speak in their grief or could we wait until morning? In today’s news cycle we don’t have a choice. I told her we needed to get something up right then. In fact, the story we reported minutes later at www.heraldsun.com was one of our most read stories of the summer.

When we move fast, we don’t always anticipate every reaction. Our first story referred to Muhammad as an activist who worked to improve the lives of “ex-cons,” a holdover from days when newspapers stressed short words to make headlines fit in print columns. Or maybe just too many crime shows. Several of you let us know that headline was insensitive. We listened and we changed the headline. We thought about the term “formerly incarcerated,” but that was long and seemed jargony. We went with “Durham activist who fought for restorative justice killed Monday,” which is also imperfect. ... My point? We are a better paper when readers help us know what is going on, share what they know about it and tell us what they think of the job we’re doing.

Several readers responded, including:

Shannon Ritchie: When in doubt, follow the lead of directly affected people. One of Umar’s greatest fights was to change the narrative and language around how we talk about formerly incarnated people. His language and his truth show us the way.

Rodrigo Dorfman: Mark - “restorative justice” is perfect. Why? Because that’s how he would have said it ! Take a breath – keep stepping out of the journalism bubble. It’s not your job to “interpret” Umar’s legacy or life. And “Formerly incarcerated” is the RIGHT word. It’s only “cumbersome” if you don’t understand its power.

Mark Schultz is the managing editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at mschultz@heraldsun.com and 919-829-8950.