IS A MAJOR MENTAL illness a laughing matter? Seattle Times metro columnist Nicole Brodeur thinks it is. But Lydia Lewis thinks Brodeur's sense has left the building. Lewis is president of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, a national advocacy group for the mentally ill.
In her Dec. 3 column, Brodeur used bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression) as a metaphor to explain the City of Seattle's obsession with spending public money on opera houses and government buildings while it cuts funding for firefighters and police officers. In her hands, manic-depressives came off as wild profligates who spend, spend, spend when they are manic and turn bluer than a Robert Johnson song when the till is empty.
The illness is far more serious than that. Brodeur didn't tell her readers that 25 percent of the illness' 2.3 million victims attempt suicide at least once and that each year 2 percent of them succeed.
In Brodeur's column, manic-depressives faced consequences no more serious than paying off a credit card, instead of the usual clinical picture of an overcharged mind shifting to suicidal lows.
"That's erroneous information that's highly stigmatizing, and it's just ignorant," Lewis said after reading the column. "I'm just floored by this. It is unbelievably irresponsible and dangerous. The paper should be ashamed that this irresponsible, flippant column was printed. We could show you hundreds of stories of despair—they should not be compared to building a new opera house, for God's sake." Says Clifford Thurston, executive director of the National Association of Rights Protection and Advocacy: "It's a destructive piece." His group advocates for mental-health consumers in Olympia. Both Lewis and Thurston say that Brodeur belittled people who live with a serious illness, one that leaves some people so out of control that they sometimes end up in the clutches of the law.
BRODEUR INSISTS THAT her intent wasn't to injure anyone but to find out, if the city were a person, what would be its diagnosis. "I got a lot of calls," she says, adding that she never intended any disrespect and was merely trying to explain the city budget.
Still, she could have easily gleaned that the subject would be touchy. All she had to do was read her own paper. In the past year, The Seattle Times has published 10 articles touching on bipolar disorder, including information about murders allegedly committed by manic-depressives. In the competing Seattle Post-Intelligencer, another 10 articles published over the past year dealt with bipolar disorder and its nasty outcomes, including an in-depth look at the life and death of former Husky cornerback Anthony Vonture, who died in police custody.
Of course, newspaper columnists make light of serious subjects the way most people kid about the federal government. Mike Henderson, a University of Washington journalism instructor and former Everett Herald columnist, would like to see Seattle's columnists swinging more wildly for the fences. He saw nothing wrong with Brodeur's column, nor did Don Pember, a noted UW communications professor. "I think people are a little too damn sensitive these days," Pember says. "What would we do if [H.L.] Mencken were around?"
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