Matthew Newton is variously described as ‘troubled’ and ‘controversial’. Media buzzwords that cut through the complexity of the case of a man who has twice beaten his female partners and stands accused of assaulting a taxi driver and now resisting arrest in the United States after allegedly refusing to leave a bar.
Is that the work of mental illness? All of it?
While none of us are privy to the specific details of the case, psychology experts like Dr Michael Carr-Gregg would ask the media to quit the over-bearing coverage. I had a chat with him about illness, fame and drawing a line between the two.
M: I wanted to talk to you about Matthew Newton because I think that your point is really interesting. Tell me what your concern is?
MCG: My concern is – I often put myself in the shoes of Bert and Patti. I’m getting up in the morning and opening a newspaper and there’s my son being basically demonised – by some sections of the media. Essentially I’m in pain, I’ve got a son who clearly has some very significant mental problems which, by all reports, is reticent to treatment and clearly subject to relapse. It’s a chronic ongoing problem and it’s not going to go away. What we do know is that the more pressure you put on him, the more likely he is to be pushed over the edge and this is what really frightens me.
I think that what we’ve got to be careful of is that he’s gone to the [United] States to get away from media. Putting the spotlight on him is only going to increase the pressure and it will in fact, I believe, compromise his attempt at recovery. My question to you is, as an experienced journo – is this in the public interest?
MCG: Is it really in the public interest? I don’t think it is.
M: I’m going to play devil’s advocate back to you and I’m going to say okay, he’s the son of famous people but he’s also famous in his own right in that he is an actor and whether you like it or not there is a degree of notoriety that comes with being an actor. He has chosen to participate in interviews subsequent to the incident with Rachel Taylor, and obviously he’s had ongoing issues – that’s clear – but he has chosen to address that. So by doing that do you then cement your illness and your behaviour and your level of fame in the public interest?
MCG: I would argue that in the interview he did with Tracy on ACA … the issue for me is that in that interview with Tracy he actually demonstrated just how unwell he was because he wasn’t entirely frank, he wasn’t entirely forthcoming, and in fact it’s what he didn’t say in that interview which is much more interesting for me as a clinician than what he did say. So I would hope the media would actually be able to process that and go ‘hmm, maybe he’s not okay, maybe putting the spotlight on him and inviting him to do interviews is counterproductive’, and I have to weigh up as a media person – do I just want the ratings or do I actually put this young man and his family’s wellbeing first?
M: When you say as a clinician you watched that and the things he didn’t say – I’m interested to know what they were. Because as a non-clinician, I also noticed the things he didn’t say which was to accept responsibility and say sorry for the fact that he’d beat up his girlfriend.
MCG: That was one of the things, there were a whole lot of others and I don’t think it would be ethical for me to go into professional speculation. That was a very clear one where you could see there was some work that had to be done – let’s just leave it at that. But it was a really interesting issue around journalistic ethics – do we continue to offer this individual the chance of basically explaining his psychopathology for everyone to see, or does there come a time when we accept the facts that he’s not a well Vegemite and that in fact it’d be in his best interests and his family’s best interests to be out of the media spotlight for awhile.
Your argument that he did participate in media interviews is a good one, but your argument that he is an actor isn’t – my understanding is that he hasn’t had a major role for quite some time and in his current psychological state is unlikely to be offered one.
M: Let’s take that to its logical conclusion – you’re suggesting that when he does something, like get arrested, get charged, be involved in an alleged assault – that the media just doesn’t report it?
MCG: No, I’m not actually saying that because that would be impossible and naïve. When he gets arrested it’s obviously going to make headlines, there’s no question about that, but it’s what happens after that is what I’m concerned about. Absolutely report the fact that once again Matthew Newton has had an unfortunate episode, accept the fact and explain – it’s a teachable moment for the rest of Australia that this guy has got complex problems, it’s not just a case of simple depression or simple substance abuse disorder, or simple anxiety disorder. This is a multi-faceted, chronic, ongoing series of psychological problems that are not going to resolve themselves overnight, that are in fact subject to relapse and are clearly resistant to treatment.
M: Is there a perception among the public that it’s all excuses? It’s an interesting idea, the idea of mental illness and celebrity colliding – we’ve only seen it happen twice before with Britney Spears and Charlie Sheen that I can think of – there’s a bloodthirstiness in the coverage, there’s a sense that he’s just making excuses and that he’s a bad person.
MCG: We’ve actually had two outstanding examples in the Australian Football League in Brendan Fevola and of course Ben Cousins – where we’ve had the celebrity and the mental illness and the substance abuse disorder. What I’m saying to you is that in fact we’ve seen an incredibly ill informed, unkind and really quite irresponsible comments – for example Caroline Wilson who is a very outspoken journalist from The Age here.
The same sentiment has been expressed with regard to Ben Cousins and now also with Matthew Newton. I don’t think that is a useful or helpful statement – they don’t know and I don’t know the intricacies of his psychological state – how dare they comment and how hurtful would that be to Bert and Patti. Where I think is the major problem – is because Bert in particular and Patti to a lesser extent have been in our televisions and homes for such a long time – it’s almost like there’s a sense that he’s part of us, he’s part of our property – and I don’t actually accept that – I think that he is entitled to his privacy, the family is entitled to their privacy irrespective of how many times he offers to do interviews with Tracy on channel nine.
M: I’d love to know specifically what coverage you object to – is it the speculation? I mean because he was arrested and everybody covered it, but no one is really covering it anymore – are they?
MCG: I think they are, he’s got a half page in the Herald Sun this morning [Wednesday] and I’m thinking, could we leave it alone now? I get to the point where I’m rung up by the ABC or somebody else and they say would you like to comment on Matthew Newton – and I have this dilemma as a mental health person who speaks on the media, do I use this as an opportunity to tell the media to shut up and why or do I refuse to go on? And I’ve elected to go on and I’ve done interviews with 4BC etc and say that now is the time to give them their privacy. And people say, well now you’re giving them oxygen – and I guess I am.
M: But this idea – do you think there’s a bit of a cynicism among Australians around mental illness and what it can be blamed for and what it can’t. My understanding is that there was a real sense of – you hit a woman, don’t hide behind your mental illness, there are people who are mentally ill that don’t repeatedly – and I know this is alleged but there was Brooke Satchwell, then Rachel Taylor – that would show a pattern of behaviour that is aligned with domestic violence rather than saying my mental illness made me do it, or my addiction made me do it.
MCG: I don’t want to speculate what his particular problems are but if you do have a pattern of behaviour that repeats itself over and over again, that is more than just a one-off error of judgment, that does speak to some deep seated and ongoing psychological problems. So yes it is absolutely ghastly and horrible, domestic violence – but the point is – what are we going to do to help him by basically bringing it up over and over again? What we’ve seen is the dark underbelly of the true Australian intolerance of mental illness and their lack of understanding. Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute have done a great job of explaining depression but when it comes to other more complex varieties of mental health I think we’ve got a long way to go.
M: But so you’re saying that when celebrity and mental illness collides, the media has a particular responsibility to be restrained in their coverage?
MCG: And to raise the emotional literacy of the general population by getting them to understand that if someone is engaged in this behaviour which involves substance abuse and a whole range of other problems, that we need to basically be sympathetic not condemnatory.
M: To play devil’s advocate – lots of people would say, “If you’re so sick why are you in a bar in Miami? Why are you not in a hospital?”
MCG: I would argue that he has gone over there to get treatment and that the level of supervision he’s been enjoying is not efficient. I would be arguing, again it’s very easy looking down the retrospective scope to make these judgements – that maybe they thought he was okay to look after himself. I would have a minder with him and I would make sure that he goes to every appointment, that he doesn’t speak to the media and doesn’t hang out in bars. Clearly alcohol and Matthew Newton are not a good mix. It’s a supervision issue.
M: There is this whole cynicism that he’s just making excuses for being a ratbag – but you’re saying that we need to look at our own responsibility in how much pressure we are applying.
MCG: I think there’s an Australian tradition of a fair go and I’m not sure that we’re applying that – partly because of his own actions, not only now but in the past, but also generally we’re fairly intolerant as a race and need to address that. I think that as we move into the next 10, 15, 20 years, we really need to develop our thinking levels around mental illness a bit more.
Dr Michael Carr-Gregg works as a nationally registered child and adolescent psychologist working in private practice in Melbourne. He is passionate about delivering evidence based psychology workshops and seminars that make a difference to the health and wellbeing of young people. He also speaks regularly on Sunrise and in the media. You can follow him on Twitter here.
What have you made of the reporting of Matthew Newton’s struggle with the law and mental illness? What do you think?