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Monthly Archives: November 2017

How the Media Should Report Mental Health Stories

Writing a story or report with pen on paper - man's hands on top of desk and writing materials

Think before you publish that story or documentary.

On Monday, the Virgin Money Giving Mind Media Awards celebrated the most supportive and accurate mental health reporting in the British media, including documentaries, radio shows, digital content and newspaper reporting.

Mind, one of the UK’s best known mental health charities, knows how important it is to report sensitively on any mental health news story or feature, because ignorant or distressing content can lead to genuine distress for mental health sufferers and their families.

So, what does responsible media content look like, and how are mental health organisations ensuring fewer damaging reports slip through the net? These are the key factors to consider.

Think Before You Write

There are many misused terms still used by reporters and editors for widely misunderstood conditions – words like ‘psychotic’, ‘bipolar’ and ‘schizophrenic’ are often used inaccurately. Furthermore, casual words like ‘crazy’, ‘mad’, ‘breakdown’ and ‘bonkers’ can also be used to generate headlines or clickbait. By sensationalising these stories, the media is reducing sufferers to stereotypes.

Good mental health content is inquisitive without being intrusive: it respects the emotional impact that comes with telling your story to a journalist or producer. It works with, not against, interviewees, and involves a high level of research to avoid offending or stigmatising anyone involved in the story. When reporting on a failure of care by health professionals, it demands answers for those affected, as was the case in Mind Media Awards winner Catherine Jones’ investigation for Channel 5 News.

Any content that could be triggering for readers, listeners or viewers is best ended with contact details for relevant organisations, such as the Samaritans. This has now become standard on episodes of television soaps, where hotline numbers or websites are displayed at the end of the episode credits. Online and print content is catching up, but there is still work to be done.

The new Mental Health Media Charter, created by campaigner Natasha Devon, calls on all parts of the media to commit to creating stigma-free mental health content. Signatories so far include the Metro, Grazia, Tes and Heat magazine. I can’t wait to see who else signs the charter and makes a stand against irresponsible journalism.

Private no public right of way sign demonstrating privacy and boundaries in driveway

We all have a right to privacy, especially when grieving, but this can sadly be overlooked by intrusive journalists.

Reporting Suicide

When reporting suicide, or suicide attempts, the media should be particularly careful not to share graphic details which may encourage other suicidal people to imitate the methods mentioned. The charity Samaritans has issued useful guidelines for anyone reporting on suicide.

Friends and family members can often be hounded by the media in the wake of a loved one’s suicide, via incessant phone calls, ‘doorstepping’ (turning up at someone’s home to get an interview), or trawling social media profiles for signs of intent. This is deeply distressing and does not help with the grieving process.

When someone close to you commits suicide, you may fear you could have done more to help them, and you search for warning signs that could have been missed days, weeks or months earlier. However, people with mental health problems and suicidal thoughts don’t necessarily look depressed; they can develop coping mechanisms and present as upbeat and untroubled. CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), a mental health charity which aims to reduce male suicide, reminds us that ‘sometimes there are no warning signs because the person wants to keep their personal crisis private, and so will work hard at hiding their thoughts and feelings’.

The media needs to recognise there is no single pattern of suicidal thought or behaviour, nor is there a single ‘depressed’ or ‘suicidal’ stock image to be used alongside these articles (such as the dreaded stereotypical ‘head clutcher’, where a person sits with their head in their hands).

Crime Stories

Mental illness is often wrongly attributed as the sole cause for a horrendous crime, leading to media speculation that everyone with that diagnosis is a threat to society. One prime example is the Germanwings pilot, Andreas Lubitz, who deliberately crashed a plane in March 2015, killing everyone on board. Stories quickly appeared, speculating that, because the pilot had been treated for depression, depressed pilots posed a threat to their passengers. Mind quickly countered such arguments with a statement.

Unfortunately, the damaging stories in the UK and beyond were still read by millions of people. The World Psychiatry Journal published findings in October 2015 that ‘the plane crash did have a measurable impact on public attitudes towards persons with mental disorder’.

In reality, serious crime happens for a multitude of reasons: some environmental and societal, some caused by reactions to life events. Stastically, someone with a mental illness is more likely to be a victim of violence than a perpetrator. With one in four of us experiencing mental illness during our lifetime, imagine how many people you come into contact with every week who successfully manage a mental health issue. You shouldn’t fear these people. Being a pilot, or taking on a similarly intense job, involves regular medical checks, and we should trust that mental health can be responsibly managed, just like any other health condition, by patients, their therapists and health professionals.

Those diagnosed with schizophrenia can also be media targets. Every year, we see headlines around the world sensationalising the rare times when a schizophrenic patient becomes violent. This reportage doesn’t communicate how rare these incidents are, how much brilliant care there is for schizophrenia patients, and how many people with the diagnosis aren’t violent at all. Cal Strode, from the Mental Health Foundation, has blogged about this misrepresentation for the Huffington Post. The perceived threats suggested by certain parts of the media are both damaging and disrespectful.  

Weights on a bar at the gym and in a pile in the foreground

Society’s attitudes towards gender, body image ideals and identity can weigh you down.

Body Image and Identity

Writer and activist Juno Dawson spoke at the Mind Media Awards about the need for the media to respect transgender issues when reporting on them. She cited the statistic (from the National Centre for Transgender Equality) that 40% of those who identify as transgender will attempt suicide.

High-profile transgender icons, such as Caitlin Jenner and Kellie Maloney, are helping to break the stigma, but the transgender community and the wider LGBTQI+ community is still not given the same respect when it comes to mental health media coverage. For example, it’s important to use the pronouns that the person identifies with (this could be he, she or they/them), and to use the correct terminology when conducting interviews or producing content.

Beyond transgender issues, body image can become too much of a fixation for tabloids and websites, who incessantly report on celebrity weight loss, dieting and weight gain. Media figures who speak out about eating disorders have often seen their bodies scrutinised by reporters, on top of the self-stigmatisation that comes with their condition. Magazines not only publish intrusive images, but also the weight, dress size and BMI of celebrities, and the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods they eat, reinforcing fears of weight gain.

Some health professionals also believe that trends like ‘clean eating’, often celebrated by the media, can fuel an ENDOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), by excluding multiple food groups and developing a restricted diet with inflexible self-imposed rules. Dr. Max Pemberton is just one of those speaking out. When clean eating gurus are praised by magazines and websites, their food ethos becomes both normalised and amplified.

Events like the Mind Media Awards remind us that progress is being made to destigmatise mental illness in our newspapers, magazines and other media. However, it would be refreshing if all media outlets used emotional intelligence, tact and sensitivity when creating content about mental health.

Written by guest contributor and mental health campaigner Polly Allen, for Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (ctpsy.co.uk).

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Black Friday and the Psychology of What We Buy

Shopping spree in brown bags with new clothing and electrical items bought in the shops

Do you need these new purchases, or were you lured by marketing campaigns like Black Friday, and clever displays?

24th November has long been called ‘Black Friday’ in the USA as a day for panic-buying Christmas shoppers but, for the last few years, it’s also been embraced by the UK.

You might remember seeing pictures in the papers of people fighting over wide-screen TV sets in British supermarkets, or queuing outside stores in the early hours to ensure they will be first in line for those Black Friday deals. We even have ‘Cyber Monday’, held the following Monday as an internet-only day of shopping deals, to add to the frenzy.

In the run-up to Black Friday, it’s important to look at the psychological drivers behind the things we buy. What makes us pick up that product that we didn’t know we needed until we walked into the shop, or until we clicked on a certain link online? And how can we be sure we truly want to buy it, whether as a Christmas present or at any other time of the year?

Black Friday: The Ultimate Special Offer, or a FOMO Trigger?

We live in a materialistic society: it’s a fact. Every day, we are bombarded with the new face cream that will change our lives, or the upgraded gadget that’s better than the one we currently own. The one-day deals of Black Friday, in particular, trigger FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out) for consumers.

If we feel we’re missing out by not buying, especially if we could theoretically save money with a time-limited special offer, we are putting immense pressure on ourselves to get out our wallets at a certain time, whether or not we can truly afford to spend money.

There’s a lot of social pressure surrounding this: the one-upmanship and the desire to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ (or, indeed the Kardashians, who will happily buy a new car or house at the drop of a hat).

Children are also susceptible to the lure of new and trendy products, as they try to fit in with their peers, and become champions of ‘pester power’ when you take them shopping. A US-based study by brand building expert Martin Lindstrom, author of Brandchild, found that parents spent 29% more when they shopped with their children – food for thought if you’re on a tight budget, or your house is already full of must-have items.

Shop open sign on retail outlet with goods in background to illustrate sales tactics by retailers including on Black Friday

Sounds, lighting and smells – not to mention the Black Friday discount deals they’re advertising – can all be used by retailers to attract customers.

Psychological Tricks Retailers Use

When you walk into a shop, retailers know how to get your interest. They invest in technology like eye scanners to test where shoppers look. Goods placed just by the entrance, or next to the tills, encourage spontaneous ‘add to basket’ moments.

Music and shopping have been interlinked by psychologists and marketers since the 1970s. More recent studies have shown that low music is better for shoppers, whilst Christmas music in shops can, unsurprisingly, invoke nostalgia. Add some spectacular window displays, in-store experiences and even scents pumped through the space, and you’ve got yourself a captive audience.

But who is the most susceptible to retailers’ tactics? The BBC’s Big Money Test from 2011-2013 found that certain types of emotional behaviour leave you more likely to impulse buy. Mark Fenton-O’Creevy, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the Open University, worked on the survey, and wrote that ‘people who were high on impulsive buying behaviour tended to be people who had poor strategies for managing their emotions and were more sensitive to the highs and lows of positive and negative emotion. In other words, it seems likely that, for many people, impulsive shopping acts as a substitute for more effective ways of managing their emotions.’

The ‘Social Proof’ Concept

‘Social proof’ is big business for retailers: the idea that your friends, family or your fellow shoppers have already bought and loved a particular product, therefore it must be good. What’s more, you don’t have to know the people who have bought a product already. A car salesman might casually mention his sister has the same car you’re considering, and she loves it. An idea has been planted: this car must be a sound investment.

Online retailers are very savvy with social proof, too; think of the alerts on a travel website telling you ten people are looking at the same hotel right now, and that five people have booked it in the last hour. Meanwhile, all kinds of products and services, from books and clothes to plumbing work, carry online consumer reviews. If all those reviews are graded as four or five stars, it’s unsurprising you’ll feel more reassured in choosing a particular option.

When you’re faced with glowing reviews, it’s important to remember we all have individual tastes. What works for one person may not work for you. Your gut instinct is still important, so don’t ignore it.

Sale sign in big red letters with lighting, surrounded by red shoes in a range of styles

That one word to get your attention as you walk past the shop… dare you go in?

How to Think Clearly When Shopping

When you’re being pushed towards a product, stop and think:

  • Do you actually need it – will it make a difference to your life?
  • If you’re buying clothing, how many items in your wardrobe can you wear it with?
  • When the next version of the product is launched, will you still use this one?
  • Is there a cheaper or more sensible alternative – for example, if you’re buying a DVD, could you borrow it from your local library, borrow from a friend, or stream it online instead?
  • If the item is reduced, would you have paid full price for it in theory?
  • Would you have bought it without the brand name attached?
  • Are you buying it to cheer yourself up, as a distraction, or to mask other emotions? If so, is there another way to deal with your feelings, such as reading a book, having a bath, or arranging a therapy session?

Armed with these questions, you should feel better equipped to navigate the shops and make informed decisions, whether on Black Friday or during the rest of the year.

Written by a guest contributor for Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (ctpsy.co.uk).

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