Stop the Stigma

Stigma in the News: A “Psychotic” Abuser

Violent abuser ≠ psychotic abuser - image of a battered woman and her partner

My news source of choice is the CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster. Usually they’re pretty good, but sometimes they slip up. This was the case with an article published on the CBC website on March 18 about a Russian woman, Margarita Gracheva, whose hands had been cut off by her “psychotic husband.”

The “psychotic” adjective was used near the beginning of the article, and it immediately caught my eye. I wondered if this was just stigma, or if this man was actually mentally ill. The article made no other mention of anything mental illness-related. A 2020 article by the same journalist about the same woman made no mention of mental illness. I recognized the journalist’s name, and he’s a CBC veteran, so he’s by no means new to the journalism game.

Before jumping all the way to the conclusion that this journalist (and his editor) were out to lunch, I thought I’d check a couple more sources. A BBC News story made no mention fo mental illness; neither did a Washington Post story or an Australian 7 News story.

This was a domestic violence situation in which a jealous husband accused the wife who was leaving him of having been unfaithful. There is no indication of any reason to think mental illness is at play. The issue is domestic violence, and how police handle women’s reports that they feel their safety is in jeopardy because of their spouse. This is a horrible scenario that repeats itself over and over and over, which is the whole point of this being in the news.

Wading into that it a veteran reporter having a head-up-ass moment and using “psychotic” as a synonym for “violent.” That kind of lazy reliance on stereotypes should be far beneath a veteran reporter and a reputable news source.

Comments on the story were closed, but I left a note using the “report typo or error” feedback system. That was a few days ago, and as of the morning this is published, “psychotic” is still there.

I take issue with this because journalists and other professional writers should be aiming for a higher standard than this. If this was some random person referring to this woman’s ex as a psycho, I’m fine with letting that go. But when a journalist chooses psychotic as a juicy adjective to add oomph to his description, that’s lazy. I say lazy because I doubt he was intentionally trying to reinforce the stereotype; he was probably just going for that juicy word.

Getting lazy and leaning on stereotypes detracts from the actual point of the article. Domestic violence is a horrible thing. That doesn’t need any random exgtras to spice it up a little.

For those people who do associate mental illness with violence, that little “psychotic” was just one more reinforcer, and there are plenty of those already.

So, @CBCChrisBrown, do better next time. Stigma doesn’t belong in the news.

Mental illness: Stop the stigma - graphic of face and megaphone with the words "speak up"

You can find more on mental illness stigma on the Stop the Stigma page.

Book cover: A Brief History of Stigma by Ashley L. Peterson

A Brief History of Stigma is the upcoming new release from Mental Health @ Home Books. It looks at the nature of stigma, the contexts in which it occurs, and how to challenge it most effectively.

Visit the book page for tips on how to be an effective advocate.

25 thoughts on “Stigma in the News: A “Psychotic” Abuser”

  1. How do you feel about using the term in a literal way? For instance, a psychiatrist told me that my mom sounds psychotic (she is bipolar and does have psychosis sometimes, but I would actually probably refer to some of her behavior as more sociopathic). To this day, I’m not sure if I liked him using that term or not, even though it is somewhat fitting. My sister had psychosis too, and I think it would bother me even more if people called her that. How do you feel about the term sociopathic? The same way as psychotic? Do you think the overuse of these words is why we tend to maybe shy away even when they are fitting?

    1. Sociopathic is a colloquial rather than a psychiatric term that’s not related to psychosis at all, but psychotic is a psychiatric term that refers to experiencing delusions or hallucinations. A lot of people use words without knowing what they actually mean, and some people confuse psychotic and psychopathic, but a journalist should be aware of the meaning of the words they use. And the word psychotic is only fitting if someone is experiencing psychotic symptoms, which the average person isn’t qualified to assess.

  2. I really admire the lengths you went through to stand up for what you believe. It’s so inspiring to hear even though you didn’t get the result you were after. Thank you Ashley 🙏

  3. Devil’s advocate mode: Plenty of words have several meanings, e.g. both a technical definition plus a colloquial definition. I would bet that most layperson readers of CBC’s website do not see the word “psychotic” and immediately think of the technical definition, i.e. the mental illness of psychosis. Rather, they’re more likely to think of out-of-control violence, similar to the Psycho movie.

    As someone who has had psychosis and lifelong depression, in general I’m fully behind your (Ashley’s) drive to reduce stigma about mental health issues. I hugely respect your work. But in this case, I fear you’re wide of the mark. I don’t think the use of psychotic in this context is likely to promote or increase mental health stigma.

    In a similar vein, my wife winces when people use the term “demented” to mean crazy. However, it’s common parlance and I don’t think it automatically reinforces a negative stereotype of people living with dementia.

    Long story cut short: just because a word *can* have a technical mental health definition, does not mean that people are using it pejoratively against people who suffer with mental health conditions.

    I have a real thing about banning “naughty words” just because they have the potential to offend. The speaker/writer’s intent is always very important (were they intending to cause offence/harm?), as is the “reasonable person’s” interpretation of what was being said.

    1. But that’s the thing; psychotic doesn’t have multiple meanings; it has one meaning, and that’s as a medical term. Let’s use Google as an example. Psychotic = “relating to, denoting, or suffering from a psychosis.” Psychosis = “a severe mental disorder in which thought and emotions are so impaired that contact is lost with external reality.”

      This has nothing to do with banning naughty words or world policing. And this is not about the average person using a word and not knowing its actual definition. I think it would be great if more people would talk about psychosis, because it seems like people don’t know what they mean. This is a reporter whose job it is to use words accurately. If he doesn’t know what the word psychotic means, he shouldn’t be using it until he’s looked it up in the dictionary. Because misusing language in his position reinforces the incorrect assumption that psychotic is the synonymous with violent. When people see language reinforced that way by authoritative sources, the next time they hear about someone being psychotic, they’re just that much more likely to immediately connect that to violence. Journalists have a responsibility to use language properly and not use words inaccurately in a slang sense in their work. As I said in the post, I wouldn’t make an issue if this was some random person referring to this character as psycho. It’s an issue because it’s a journalist with an authoritative platform using a word inaccurately, and in doing so, reinforcing deeply ingrained social stereotypes linking mental illness and violence. He isn’t creating those, but from his authoritative position there’s no excuse for being lazy in his use of language when it comes to something like this.

  4. I think that any sort of generalization like that is bad. I also think that most ‘journalists’ today (they don’t deserve the title, they don’t ‘report’ news, they spin sound bites and fluff into stories) aren’t well read enough to respect the differences and nuances of such a big subject as mental illness. Equating ‘psychotic’ with ‘violent’ is doing the real psychotics a disservice, even though many psychotic people ARE violent, to my knowledge. I could be wrong. Adding some disclaimer like “in my opinion” or “alleged” might have been a better way to address that particular instance. Too bad the editor of that piece wasn’t more on the ball.

    1. That’s absolutely incorrect. People with psychotic illnesses are no more likely than anyone else to be violent. I don’t blame you at all for being mistaken about that; it’s an inaccurate stereotype that’s deeply entrenched in our society. That’s why it bothers me so much that this journalist misused the word. People assume that link, and this kind of thing reinforces that.

  5. I understand the frustration! As a therapist, I’m so tired of clients and people in general using clinical diagnoses and terms to describe behaviors; more specifically, bipolar, panic attack, adhd, antisocial, and narcissistic personality. Hopefully your edit request gets taken seriously

  6. I am totally with you on this Ashley. There is too much stigma in many news departments and media as a whole.
    I get sick every time I hear someone use the term “bi-polar” in a news coverage about a mass shooter.
    I am so glad that you have medical training to push back on the CBC journalist.
    Thank you Ashley!

  7. There’s definitely a responsibility in journalism that has been thrown away.
    I had to stop a stranger from calling the police on a local homeless man who appears to be schizophrenic. He’s never been violent to my knowledge and he wasn’t being violent at the time the stranger wanted to call the police. He was having an argument with a hallucination. He wasn’t even being that loud. There was no reason to call the police, who I’m sure are well acquainted with this man.

    Like so many subjects, greater knowledge is sorely needed when it comes to mental health/illness. And words DO matter. We should all choose carefully. Especially professional journalists.

  8. I read your “about” page, thank you for sharing. The internet is a whole new world for me so I’m learning to navigate. I received my MH diagnosis in 2017, my experience in the medical field is mainly urology over 25 yrs ago which I learned to always do my own research so It’s nice to learn from others & hear their stories. Blessings!!

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