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The Ugly Reaction To A Journalist's Suicide In Romania Shows How Mental Illness Is Still A Huge Taboo

Female residents of a maximum-security psychiatric hospital look through a fence in Romania, where a lack of understanding and discrimination against people with mental illness is still rife. (illustrative photo)
Female residents of a maximum-security psychiatric hospital look through a fence in Romania, where a lack of understanding and discrimination against people with mental illness is still rife. (illustrative photo)

BUCHAREST -- "It's odd to think my life depends on a few milligrams of a substance I've barely heard of," Romanian journalist Iulia Marin wrote on Facebook on April 10. "And when I say [my] life, I am not exaggerating.... I've reached a point where I no longer understand what's wrong with me and why I can't function." My depression "doesn't want to lift, and that's that."

It was Marin's last Facebook post. Just over a week later, on April 18, the 32-year-old journalist, who was well-regarded for her investigative reporting, was found dead in her apartment in Bucharest. The verdict was death by suicide.

Her death, which would have usually warranted a news story and tributes from colleagues, was twisted into something altogether more distasteful, revealing the widespread prejudice against people with mental health issues in Romania -- and how, for the most part, discussion of the issue still remains taboo.

As a journalist, Marin was known and respected for her in-depth and investigative stories, in particular on the coronavirus pandemic and on the impact of the war in Ukraine. Known for her courage, she wrote about the abuse of public funds, the academic plagiarism rife in Romanian society, and even enrolled in controversial online influencer Andrew Tate's Hustlers University for an article. Tate is currently under house arrest in Romania as prosecutors investigate charges of human trafficking and rape.

Her colleagues described her as "brave" and "gifted," and she worked for some of the most prestigious media outlets in Romania in her 11-year career, including Adevarul, PressOne, Recorder, Gandul, and Libertatea. Marin also used her writing talent -- and courage -- to publicly document her pain, writing openly about her personal struggles with depression and bipolar disorder.

Iulia Marin
Iulia Marin

However, Marin's openness, and her sudden and untimely death, didn't evoke any sympathy among some of her fellow journalists.

Victor Ciutacu, a divisive television journalist with a rivalry with her employer, the daily newspaper Libertatea, went on prime-time television and made derogatory remarks about her and her work.

In two TV shows he hosted on the private, conservative Romania TV, Ciutacu and his guests chewed over the story with remarks such as: "Those mentally disturbed people produce media content," or "The lost girl was promoted as a media experiment," and "I wouldn't let someone with mental problems work for me."

Romania TV not only supported the essence of Ciutacu's and his guests' comments but made more explicit accusations. "Editor in chief Catalin Tolontan was responsible for sending Iulia Marin to her death by allowing her to work at the publication he was in charge of," Romania TV said in an official statement on April 22, referring to Tolontan, a prominent journalist whose investigative work into a Romanian nightclub fire featured prominently in the award-winning and Oscar-nominated documentary Collective.

Victor Ciutacu
Victor Ciutacu

In the statement, Romania TV also said that with her background, Marin should have been tasked with writing about culture, ecology, or leisure. "Ignoring work legislation in Romania and Iulia Marin's doctor's advice, the journalist Catalin Tolontan decided to support and encourage her. He ignored Iulia Marin's needs and kept her in an environment that encouraged aggressive actions."

'Stigma' For Mentally Ill

Outraged, some 300 media outlets, medical organizations, civic groups, and public figures signed a petition against Ciutacu and Romania TV, saying the televised comments "incited hate and discrimination" against people with mental illness.

In the petition, signatories said that Marin "was a committed and talented journalist. Her integrity and professional judgement were never doubted. [She] battled a medical condition that had been diagnosed and treated for several years, while continuing to work, as do millions of men and women in Romania who have various illnesses [ranging] from cancer to neurosis, heart problems to diabetes, or bipolar disorder."

"There is still a stigma attached to being mentally ill in Romania, and deep shame about having emotional problems," Cristina Dimitrescu, a psychotherapist and director of the Bucharest-based Mind Help Clinic, told RFE/RL.

Romania's Association of Psychologists agreed, issuing a statement noting that "negative attitudes and toxic behavior in society toward people who face mental disorders...[can lead to] stigmatization, discrimination, including in the workplace, blame, discrediting, insulting, invalidating, and criticizing."

The association said the Romanian authorities were "duty bound, through laws, public policies, and sanctions, to reduce prejudice and discrimination toward people with mental disorders, including ensuring access to work." The media has "a moral duty" in its role of guiding public opinion, the association added. "The tone given by the media can encourage or discourage stigmatization."

On April 27, the National Audiovisual Council, the country's media watchdog, fined Romania TV 100,000 lei ($21,729) -- the largest fine ever handed out by the body and the maximum permitted by law.

Psychology 'Banned' By Ceausescu

A lack of understanding and discrimination against people with mental illness is still rife in Romania. The predominant Orthodox Church, to which 85 percent of Romanians belong, refuses to perform proper funerals for people who take their own lives, only allowing them to be buried in the corner of cemeteries.

Worldwide, Catholic priests also used to not carry out funeral services for suicide victims, but the church formally lifted that ban in the 1980s. Protestants have generally been more relaxed about funeral rites for people who kill themselves.

The roots of current attitudes to mental illness in Romania can be traced back to the communist era, when dictator Nicolae Ceausescu abolished psychology from the high-school curriculum in 1972, and from university departments in 1977, in response to what he and his wife perceived to be ideological threats to communism. Practicing psychologists were instructed to adopt a Marxist view of popular contemporary psychological theories and dissenters were imprisoned. In 1982, Ceausescu went as far as banning the word "psychology" from the official lexicon and banned international professional collaborations.

Psychology teaching at universities resumed in 1990 after the revolution and "that is why there is the need for education [now]," psychotherapist Dimitrescu said. In recent years, there has been a greater openness and understanding toward depression, unresolved trauma, and other mental illnesses, particularly in the big cities where there are plenty of psychologists and psychotherapists offering their services.

Growing Awareness

Romanian fashion designer Stephan Pelger, 43, who counted Carmen Iohannis, the wife of Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, among his clients, hanged himself on June 8. Like Marin, he had also publicly talked about suffering from depression and insomnia for several years.

"There is a growing awareness about mental illness, especially among the younger generation. It's a sign of a healthy new generation," Dimitrescu said.

But that alone is not enough, she insists, urging the state to do more. "Public health-care services do not offer people free psychotherapy, except when a psychiatrist's practice or neurologist has a contract with one. Treatment in psychiatry hospitals is based on medicine, and psychotherapy is mostly available to patients who are being treated for substance abuse."

Despite this, there is a growing demand for her services, she says, particularly after the coronavirus pandemic, when doctors and other professionals have increasingly come to her for treatment for burnout.

Because of the public taboo in speaking about mental health, Marin's detailed, raw, and heartfelt descriptions of her own suffering stood out, in a way rarely seen in Romania.

"My third suicide attempt. In three years. One a year. Different treatments. Different states of mind. Mania, hypomania, depression, anxiety. Those words mean nothing if you haven't experienced them," began one post she wrote from the hospital in October 2022 on Facebook.

On April 1, she posted a more optimistic message, saying how she was feeling better than she had in years and was hopeful. However, on April 10, she appeared to have a relapse and made her last Facebook post. "It's hard not to give up. The fifth or the sixth antidepressant in less than four years comes with new hopes and, so far, no side effects. But I wonder whether I'm just waiting for a new disappointment, a placebo effect, who knows?"

After she was found dead eight days later, Libertatea ordered an independent inquiry into the case. "We hope that the...audit will put an end to the proliferation of the absurdities connected to Iulia Marin's tragic death that are swirling around the public arena," said Mihnea Vasiliu, general manager of Ringier Romania, the local branch of the newspaper's Zurich-based owner Ringier Axel Springer Media AG.

Many Romanians hope that Marin's death wasn't in vain, as it has helped break the taboo about mental health.

Psychiatrist Eduard Motoescu told RFE/RL's Romanian Service that "her voice probably helped us destigmatize mental illness. She said things plainly, [which] helped people empathize with [her] in a more natural and easy way."

"Iulia opened a door for us to look at those around us."

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