There is no doubt that coverage of mental health stories has grown in recent years. With an economic cost set at £74 billion and £99 billion in the UK, and one in four adults estimated to have a mental health problem, it has become a greater feature on the political agenda. In news reporting, this has provided a powerful opportunity for responsible and informative journalism that may, in turn, reduce stigma and misconceptions about a subject laden with stereotypes.
In both my personal and professional life, I have worked, lived and blogged about the many issues within mental health policy and research. Most strikingly, I have witnessed the progression – and setbacks – in written and broadcast media. The three areas of greatest contention can arguably be divided into the following: language, medication and the link between mental health and crime.
Reporting on violent incidents
Over one third of the public believe people with mental health problems are violent despite the fact they are more likely to be the victims of crime, rather than the perpetrators.  Such stigma is likely influenced by media reporting of serious crime, where a causal link is often made between crime, violence and mental illness. For example, in the Germanwings plane crash, speculation about the pilot’s history of depression escalated into a debate about whether those with mental illness should be allowed to pursue this line of work.  Similarly, headlines about mass shootings in the US frequently focus on speculation around the perpetrator’s mental state.  To combat the misconception that all people with mental illness are violent, it is important for journalists to exercise caution when reporting on these stories. Anti-stigma campaign Time to Change provide a helpful guide.
The discussion of anti-depressants (also known as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)) in documentaries, feature stories and articles can often spark controversy. It is arguably a politicised issue that requires a balanced perspective in reporting. Scaremongering or generalising based on one person’s case study is an unhelpful practice that may dissuade people from seeking medical help. BBC Panorama’s documentary ‘A Prescription for Murder’ is a recent example that prompted backlash over the suggestion that anti-depressants were responsible for the 2012 mass shooting in a US cinema. With 64 million prescriptions of antidepressants made in 2016, it is important not to create an environment of fear. With stigma already engulfing the topic of depression, sensational headlines pose the risk that vulnerable people will stop taking medication – or seeking help in the first place.
Language, terminology and stereotypes
Even with good intentions, an article may be littered with terms that could cause offence – from labelling someone as “mentally handicapped” to reporting someone as having “committed suicide” rather than “taken their own life” (the latter phrase shifting terminology of suicide away from being a criminal act). In certain instances, the debate about linguistic terminology can be labelled as “pedantic” or too politically-correct. Whilst too great a fixation on labels can lead to fear of reporting at all, there are a few terms which should be correctly phrased in order to avoid reinforcing stigma or causing offence. Reporting on suicide is one such topic and guidelines can be found here.
Mental health [patient/sufferer/victim], mentally ill, mentally impaired, service user, person with lived experience, person suffering with a mental health problem, anorexic, bulimic, schizophrenic – there are many potential terms that may (seemingly) refer to the same definition but can cause offence to some individuals. My best advice? If you are doing a case study, ask the person, how they would like to be described. In other circumstances, have a look at online guides but try not to get too caught up in the politics between “mental health patient” and “person with a mental health condition”. Research will flag up the terms you definitely should not use, but otherwise, use your best judgement and some common sense.
Top 5 tips:
- Don’t be afraid to tackle difficult subjects – from reporting on suicide to self-harm and eating disorders, there are guidelines available for reporting from charities such as Samaritans, bEAT or anti-stigma campaign Time to Change.
- Don’t let language dissuade you from reporting on mental health topics but avoid the use of stigmatising terms such as “crazy”, “mad” or “psycho”. A combination of research and common sense should prevail and once again, there is information online that can help with your report.
- Involvement with persons with lived experience can be incredibly powerful. However, be sure to clarify the boundaries of what can be discussed as well as what they would like to be known as (mental health patient etc), if they wish to be fully identifiable (just first name, no surname) and that they are under no pressure/obligation to disclose anything they don’t want to.
- Be cautious in the approach taken for stories where the mental state of a violent perpetrator has come under question. Whilst it may or may not be factually correct, such speculation may inadvertently stigmatise the majority non-violent population with mental illnesses. A headline or sub-heading which implicates a causal link between mental illness and violence should be avoided. If reference is made to the mental state of the accused (be it depression or schizophrenia), it would be advisable to contextualise this fact (or speculation) by stating that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of crime.
- Finally, there is a key role for new media. From the large Twitter community to the many vlogs and blogs of persons with lived experience, new media gives people a voice; particularly those who may have previously felt disempowered or afraid to share their story. Connecting with people on social media provides an opportunity to engage in conversations that will not only reach a larger audience, but also assist with greater context for you, as a journalist, in your future reporting.
Ultimately, there is a great opportunity to better educate and inform the public about an issue which has traditionally been neglected and side-stepped in favour of physical health conditions. It is important to do your research. Communicate with people impacted by mental health problems. Follow the reporting guidelines, particularly on the more sensitive subjects of suicide, self-harm and eating disorders but don’t shy away from reporting on the facts – in time, it is hoped that the myths, misconceptions and misreporting of mental illness will be replaced with a more educated public that feels more confident in talking about their own mental health.