It seems like every story of mass violence or a school shooting includes speculation about what mental illness the alleged perpetrator has. Why is that? What can we do about it? Join us as Emmy Award winning journalist Elizabeth Vargas contests these thoughts and shares the media’s point of view.
Emmy Award winning journalist Elizabeth Vargas has traveled the world covering breaking news stories, reporting on-depth investigations, and conducting newsmaker interviews. She is the host of America’s Most Wanted on Fox TV. She hosted the hit newsmagazine show 20/20 on ABC for 15 years, and was co-anchor of World News Tonight, and news anchor and frequent host of Good Morning America. She hosted A&E Investigates, doing a series of documentaries that still air on Hulu.
During the historic Iraqi elections in December 2005, she reported extensively for World News Tonight from Baghdad on both civilian life in Iraq and American military involvement there. She has interviewed leaders from around the world, including President Bush from the Oval Office in the White House. Vargas has also anchored ABC News coverage of live, breaking stories, including the deaths of President Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy, Jr., and Hurricane Katrina’s devastation on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Vargas won an Emmy in 2000 for Outstanding Instant Coverage of a News Story for anchoring live coverage of the Elian Gonzalez case.
Vargas has also interviewed a wide range of celebrities, from actors and musicians to business leaders and authors, including: Ellen DeGeneres, Jeff Skoll, Sheryl Crow, Madonna, Johnny Depp, Hugh Hefner, Jessica Simpson, Mick Jagger, Drew Barrymore, Dan Brown, Alanis Morissette, and Cat Stevens.
In 2016, Vargas released her memoir, “Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction.” The book details her lifelong struggle with anxiety and how she self-medicated with alcohol, and tells a powerful story of healing and coping. The book spent several weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and won numerous awards. Vargas is a member of the board of directors for the nonprofit Partnership to End Addiction. She hosts a podcast, Heart of the Matter, about addiction, recovery, and the stigma so many face in their effort to heal.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hey, everyone, I’m your host Gabe Howard. And calling into the show today, we have Emmy Award-winning journalist Elizabeth Vargas. She is currently the host of America’s Most Wanted and previously hosted the hit newsmagazine show 20/20 for 15 years, among many other TV journalism endeavors. Elizabeth, welcome to our show.
Elizabeth Vargas: Thank you. It’s great to be with you.
Gabe Howard: I want to say upfront that I live with bipolar disorder. So that’s my frame of reference. So, when the media portrayal of everyone who is violent is they must have some sort of mental illness, it makes my life and the lives of other people who are living with mental illness very, very difficult. Now, I’m not a journalist. I’m a podcast host, but you are a journalist. So as a journalist, I’d like your perspective on why the media continues to promote the stereotype that all violence comes from people with mental illness.
Elizabeth Vargas: Well, I’m not entirely sure that that’s absolutely true. The media doesn’t portray all violence as stemming from mental illness. There’s lots of violence that the media covers that where mental illness is never mentioned. However, there are instances like in New York City when a mentally ill man shoved a woman in front of a subway and killed her. And in that case, it goes to the heart of a very big issue here in New York City with mental illness and the way the city treats it, especially in the homeless population. There’s been a lot of criticism that the city doesn’t do enough to help people who are mentally ill and living on the streets. So, I’m not entirely sure. I see plenty of coverage of violence where mental illness is never mentioned. I am happy that as a result, I think of this awful pandemic that we’re seeing more coverage in the media about mental illness in general, because so many people are now coming forward to say they suffer from anxiety and depression, especially in the pandemic. It’s been exacerbated. We know that to be true based on research. So, I’m hoping that we’re beginning to turn a corner and that we discuss mental illness in ways that aren’t associated simply with a crime, but with a general state of being. Because we know many, many, many people suffer from mental illness of various degrees and various types. And the more we talk about it, the more I think people might feel encouraged to get help.
Gabe Howard: I do understand what you are saying that it is an exaggeration to say that it is “always” that way. Because you are right, it is not that way 100% of the time, but it is quite often and to our community, it does feel like it is always that way. Now I understand that feelings aren’t facts. But what do you think about the way the media frequently portrays acts of mass violence? Invariably if there is a school shooting, the news will say, well, what mental illness do they have? What mental health crisis? And have they seen a therapist, and do they rely on meds? There is just a lot of immediate talk or speculation on the suspect’s mental health or mental illness. And that puts my community, the mental health community, on the defensive right away, because stigma and discrimination against people with mental illness is a real real problem for us.
Elizabeth Vargas: Well, you can only look at the numbers to see that millions and millions of people struggle with mental illness and mental health. That is a fact. I’m on the board of directors of the Partnership to End Addiction, and we track these numbers closely and we know this to be true. Yet those millions and millions of people, the vast majority of them, never commit any sort of crime or any act of violence. You can’t say just because you’re mentally ill, you’re going to commit an act of violence. That’s a silly and ridiculous sort of conclusion to draw. However, people who go in, for example, and shoot up the school often are suffering from some sort of mental illness. You can just see that to be true. So, to ignore that is to ignore the story. I think it’s unrealistic to expect the media to report on school shootings and not report that that young man or young woman, usually a young man, has been suffering from some sort of mental illness. But that doesn’t mean that all people who suffer from mental illness will commit acts of violence. In fact, the vast majority suffer. Many of them, most of them in silence without ever committing a crime. I’m really not. I don’t buy into the premise that every time the media covers mental health or mental illness, that it’s saying that all acts of violence are because somebody was mentally ill.
Gabe Howard: I understand what you are saying, but this is how my community feels. We feel like we are always being called out and criticized surrounding violence. Now, you are a member of the board of directors for the Partnership to End Addiction and you are a successful and prominent journalist. Can you tell our audience, from your perspective, what can we do to make this better? To help members of my community lessen this feeling of being attacked?
Elizabeth Vargas: Well, listen, the media can just report the story. In a case of a, you brought up the school shooting in that case, in many of the tragedies and that occurred with these mass shootings, there is documented evidence that the shooter suffered from mental illness. Those are the facts and the media reports the facts of the story where I think the media can do a much better job is reporting on mental health overall and mental illness as an issue in this culture and in the society, in this country and the world right now in a way that isn’t related to any crime. And I think you’re seeing more of that. I mean, there’s been a lot of reporting done in the newspapers for sure about the fact that so many people are suffering right now from anxiety and depression. The numbers are off the charts during this pandemic. We know this to be true and in fact, it’s been reported. So that’s where I think the media can do a better job. It helps destigmatize mental health and mental illness. And by destigmatizing it, you can talk about what people can do to get help.
Elizabeth Vargas: And people will be more willing to reach out and get help and admit that they have a problem to somebody else. And I’m not just a journalist. I’m somebody who suffered from anxiety for my entire life. And I wrote a book about it and was very open about it. And you’re seeing more and more people being open about the fact that they suffer from anxiety or depression. And that’s a good thing. You know, I didn’t admit to anybody for a very, very long time, decades of my life, that I had anxiety because I was ashamed of it. And it was only after hearing other people talk openly about it that I decided I could as well.
Gabe Howard: One of the criticisms of all the talk about mental health in the media is while mental health is getting a lot of conversation, which is fantastic and I agree with you, it is absolutely fantastic. Mental illness, serious and persistent mental illness that the things you know. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, hallucinations, psychosis, is getting less media attention. What is the conversation that we can have surrounding that? Because as you said in New York City, just using your example from the top of the show, homelessness is everywhere. I was just in Los Angeles and homelessness is everywhere and nobody cares. There’s no there’s no media attention. Nobody’s even talking about it. And I’m just watching hundreds of people walk past suffering humans. Myself included. I want to be perfectly honest, just walking right past, going about my day. And this this person has no resources, no home, and nobody is even talking about it. What can we do to sway the conversation back that way?
Elizabeth Vargas: Well, I actually think people are talking about it. There’s been a lot of coverage here in New York City on the homeless issue. And I know that I’m in L.A. a lot for work. And I have very close friends who live in L.A. and I don’t see what the local news is doing in L.A., but I know that amongst my friends, it’s a constant conversation point because they see it. I think the bigger problem is nobody knows what to do about it. It’s a difficult, thorny issue. And I can just speak from personal experience here in New York City that part of the problem is paying for shelters, trying to get people the treatment. You know, when you’re talking about the homeless, mentally ill population often don’t want treatment. Do you force people into treatment? How long can you force them into treatment? We constantly, for example, the man who committed this homicide, allegedly, but it was in front of a lot of witnesses by shoving the woman in front of the subway had been in and out of not only the jail system, but the hospital system. But it raises all sorts of thorny issues.
Elizabeth Vargas: At what point do you force people to get help? Can you force somebody to get help? And those aren’t easy questions and those aren’t easy issues. We have a history, you know, decades and decades ago when we did force people against their will into hospitals, psychiatric hospitals and all sorts of abuses and horrific things happen. So, it’s not an easy fix. I don’t think people the media are ignoring the issue, because I can tell you, I read about the stories in the newspapers all the time. In our recent mayoral campaign, it was a huge issue and it continues to be a huge issue for our new mayor. It’s not that people aren’t talking about it, and it’s not that the media isn’t reporting it. It’s that it’s really difficult, thorny issue. And there are no easy answers. And unfortunately, when you have tragedies like the murder of the woman, people get frightened. And when people are frightened, sometimes clear thought is the first thing that gets set aside.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back with Emmy Award winning journalist Elizabeth Vargas discussing portrayals of mental illness in the media. Do you believe that we as a society are just quick to blame the media because holding the other people accountable is just much too difficult?
Elizabeth Vargas: Oh, listen, I think the media gets blamed for a lot of things and the media is guilty of a lot of things. I don’t think the media is guilty of saying that everybody who has schizophrenia or bipolar disorder is homicidal. And I don’t think the media is ignoring the issue of homelessness. And you can’t ask a free press to edit out pertinent germane information, like the man who shoved the woman in front of the subway and killed her was mentally ill and had a history of mental illness. The media has to do a good job in reporting all the facts fairly and providing context. So, if people are somehow feeling like the media is saying that everybody who’s schizophrenic or bipolar is also homicidal. I have I have never seen that said anywhere.
Gabe Howard: Is it possible that part of the issue that we have here is that the word media has expanded just too far? I mean, we’re long past the days of, I hate to say, real journalism because it gets people’s hackles up and it makes them offended. But we literally have news sources that cater to what people already believe. I mean, we have conservative news outlets. We have liberal news outlets. And I just I think to myself, you know, I took a journalism class where we’re not we’re not supposed to have left and right media. We’re just supposed
Elizabeth Vargas: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: To have facts on facts. On facts. So is part of this problem that people are like, hey, I listen to Joe Rogan. That’s the media. Therefore, the media said X.
Elizabeth Vargas: You bring up an excellent point. And stepping aside for a second on the political slant of right wing versus left wing social media right now, that’s the word social media. So, if you want to include in the media, Facebook and Twitter and TikTok and Instagram, you bet anybody can post something on those platforms, anyone. And yes, Joe Rogan, who is wildly popular, I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing he didn’t go to journalism school and didn’t take all the law classes and the ethics classes that we all take. And he doesn’t report the news, he has a podcast in which he says, I’m sure a lot of interesting things to his audience. But you’re absolutely right. There are all sorts of studies that show that the new generation coming up, millennials and that sort of thing, get their news from YouTube. These platforms are not the same thing. There is a there is not an equivalency between what you’re reading on Facebook and what you’re reading in The New York Times. I can tell you, as a journalist who spent decades at the network level, that everything we reported on ABC News and when I was at NBC News and even when I spent my years in local news, was vetted by lawyers. You know, I would do ten interviews, for example, for an episode of 20/20. Those interviews would be transcribed. The lawyers would look through every word of those transcribed interviews would look through all of my research.
Elizabeth Vargas: And it’s like somebody over my shoulder checking to make sure I haven’t drawn a conclusion that isn’t fair and isn’t accurate. And then we had a standards person who did the same thing, who made sure the context was appropriate and fair. So, these other platforms don’t do that. So, when people begin to lump in, when they say media, quote-unquote, and they include in that what they’re reading on Facebook, which can be posted by anyone, anywhere and sometimes is very valuable. When you’ve got somebody in a war zone, you’ve got somebody in a disaster zone going on to Facebook and writing about what they see. We might not be able to get there. That’s a great witness account, but it’s not a journalistic account. Nobody has vetted that in any way, shape or form. So, yes, when you talk about the media portrayal of mental illness, certainly I’m talking about media coverage of mental illness from the standpoint of those organizations that are true media organizations. But there is a huge gray area. In fact, the gray area is now bigger than the black and white area where we have standards and legal experts overseeing and other eyes. It’s not me alone writing my script. I have producers and associate producers and an executive producer, and we all argue about what’s the best way? Is that fair? I don’t think that’s accurate. It’s a robust argument in those rooms on the piece before it ever gets to air.
Gabe Howard: From your perspective as a journalist, what would you recommend to the people listening when they’re thinking, how can they vet their news sources? Because this is also a constant, constant debate. Where do you get your news? That place isn’t real. And every single news source under the sun is considered fake news to somebody.
Elizabeth Vargas: Right. Well, part of that is. What’s happening in our culture right now. We are highly polarized. The debate, the public debate over everything from voting rights to substance use disorder to mental health to crime to my gosh, every single thing you can think of is now being discussed through a lens that is highly partisan and highly divided and highly polarized. It’s not the first time in our nation’s history that we’ve been in a place like this. I think it’s important to understand that it’s not unprecedented. But if I had a dollar for every time I told one of my kids, don’t believe everything you read online, I would wouldn’t I’d be able to put them through college and easily. I tell people all the time when I speak to graduating classes of journalists and others, I tell them all the time, read everything you can get your hands on and don’t make sure it’s not all the same thing. Don’t read The New York Times and The Washington Post. Maybe read The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to get two different editorial perspectives. I watch and read a variety of sources, and I make sure that I’m not just in one silo, because I think we all know that the more educated we are and the more we hear from other points of view, the better off we are.
Gabe Howard: Elizabeth, this is kind of a big question, but in your opinion, how can the media help with this problem? How can members of the media help improve public education on mental illness?
Elizabeth Vargas: Wow. That’s a great question. Obviously, you know, it’s a big issue. It’s bigger now than it’s ever been. And if there’s a silver lining in the awful pandemic, it’s that people are talking openly. I think because so many people are suffering from it, we’ve reached a critical mass perspective. I would hope the media would do more to cover those stories, not just how many people are suffering and what that looks like, but how you can get help. And I and I do see it. I see it in my newsfeed every morning. There was an article that popped up yesterday in The New York Times about how exercise can help anxiety, something I already knew because I both suffer from anxiety and I exercise a lot. And I know I’m very familiar with the endorphin high and how that helps. But anything like that, I think the more it becomes just a normal part of conversation, the more people will feel less ashamed and more empowered to speak up and say, I’m having a hard time. You know, I remember when I was working at ABC News and we were covering, for example, after Sandy Hook, the terrible, terrible school shooting that happened out in Connecticut. ABC News offered counseling. They put out an email. Because covering that story was traumatic. There were a lot of people covering that story who are parents with kids.
Elizabeth Vargas: And to watch, you know, the agony, the utter agony of those parents, they needed help after that. And there was a time, decades ago, not even decades ago, just years ago, news organizations didn’t offer counseling to their employees who were out seeing these things. We go out and we cover war zones. We see deaths, we see starvation. We see awful things that we then try and tell the story and often can’t even tell you everything we saw because it’s too graphic or too much so. And I remember in the last couple of years that I was at ABC News, they started a daily meditation. Every day at noon there was a meditation that the employees could go to. So, I think the more that not just media companies, but all companies start to recognize that mental health is a real issue and addressing it properly will only increase the productivity of their employees and the happiness of their workforce and will normalize it to normalize the fact that these are real issues for real people. When you talk about. Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I think the more we talk about it, the more we normalize it, the more we talk about the fact that there are many people out there living productive, amazing lives who have these conditions and take medication for it. And they’re fine. The more that we mainstream it, the better off we’ll all be.
Gabe Howard: I could not agree with that sentiment more. I do think that we need more open conversations, and I’m glad that we were able to sit down and have this conversation because so many people in the mental health community just very, very much feel that the media vilifies us. And it’s I know it’s very black and white thinking. So, to give you the opportunity to help us understand, explain it to us and challenge that thinking is extraordinarily powerful. Thank you. Thank you so much.
Elizabeth Vargas: Oh, you’re welcome. And I would just. There’s very little in life that’s black and white, basically. Death. Most of life is are shades of gray. And there’s always room for improvement, definitely for the media. I think in today’s world and landscape, when quote unquote, the media encompasses so much that really isn’t traditional media with training and legal expertise and standards and ethics that there’s a lot of room for criticism. And I think that it’s important to have these conversations. The more we talk about it, the better off we’ll all be.
Gabe Howard: Elizabeth, thank you so much for having this conversation with me. Before I end the recording is there any question I didn’t ask you or anything you would like to say on this subject before we end?
Elizabeth Vargas: No. I just want to make sure that you make sure that all these answers are in context, because this is a very nuanced subject.
Gabe Howard: Yes, absolutely. That it’s that is very important to me because I want to make sure that people don’t see me as some, like, tabloid podcaster. I want to be as popular as Joe Rogan, but I don’t want to say that horse tranquilizers cure COVID.
Elizabeth Vargas: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Well, Elizabeth, on that note, thank you so, so much for being here. Where can our listeners find more of you on the web?
Elizabeth Vargas: Yes. I have a podcast called Heart of the Matter that I do to my work on the Partnership to End Addiction. You can find that on Apple and Spotify. And we talk about mental health and substance use disorder. And I have a book called “Between Breaths,” which I wrote about my battle with anxiety and addiction and how I used alcohol to medicate, self-medicate my own anxiety and found a healthier way to deal with my anxiety. So.
Gabe Howard: That’s awesome. Obviously, the podcast is on your favorite podcast players. I’m sure it’s everywhere in the book is no doubt on Amazon.
Elizabeth Vargas: Yes. Anywhere. Bookstores as well. But yes, of course it’s on Amazon.
Gabe Howard: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you. Thank you so much for being so honest.
Elizabeth Vargas: It was good to talk to you.
Gabe Howard: And a big thank you to all of our listeners. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” as well as an award-winning public speaker who may be available for your next event. My book is on Amazon, or you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me over at gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It’s absolutely free and hey, do me a favor. Recommend the show to your friends, family or colleagues, whether it’s social media, text messaging, email, or good old-fashioned word of mouth. I would appreciate the favor. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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