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Category Archives: communication

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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Words Were Originally Magic – Why Trump Needs to Read de Shazer

Words can be black magic

Words can be black magic…

Words Were Originally Magic is the title of an acclaimed book on solution-focused brief therapy, written by psychotherapist Steve de Shazer.

De Shazer’s solution-focused approach believes that the solutions to most problems can often be found in the words we use. This may, at first, appear naive.

In essence, to develop a more positive life, we each need to closely examine the words we use daily: we need a new story or narrative. Words offer the magic that is needed.

This belief system maintains that our problems persist because we keep on using the same old solutions; solutions that never worked in the past to solve our issues. Put even more simply, we usually try to solve our problems by putting the same wrong key in the front door and then wonder why it doesn’t open.

By using different ‘words’ or ‘change’ talk about the future, by visioning or thinking about it differently, we are on the way to changing a situation. This is where the magic of words comes into play.

The words we use, or do not use, are central to future outcomes.

This mode of thinking is also central to the belief of many seminal thinkers and the founders of existential psychology, such as Husserl, Morleau Ponte, Heidegger and Foucault.

Essentially, we create our future reality and eventual fate, good or bad, through the narrative we use.

But what if the narrative we use is wholly negative? It could be a narrative filled with threats, and driven by megalomania and narcissism. This, then, suggests that words may also have the potential to become ‘black magic’. In such cases, we need to use a great deal of awareness and cognition to examine what is about to leave the lips.

The President of the United States, Donald Trump, is spewing very frightening words directed at North Korea. The words are becoming darker.

In this blackening of words, there is an even bleaker construction taking place: a construction that threatens much of humanity. Words have the potential to become reality.

Now, more than ever, it is time words were thought about with just pause and contemplation.

All humanity holds its breath.

De Shazer, Steve (1994) Words Were Originally Magic, Norton, London.

Written by 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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Rare Disease and Not Being Heard by Your GP

Facing ignorant GP described using Ignorance sign on white wall

Are you struggling to explain your illness to your GP?

Living with a rare illness is a struggle, but dealing with an ignorant GP increases that struggle.

Those feelings of not being listened to increase the isolation, ramp up the stress and contribute to disease progression.

I do not use the term ‘ignorant’ as an insult, rather I chose it to reflect the true meaning of the word. Ignorant means ‘destitute of knowledge’: in this case, a GP who doesn’t know what it means to live with your rare illness day in, day out, and doesn’t know how debilitating its symptoms can be.

Rare Diseases and GP Treatment

A GP’s case load normally consists of the everyday ailments of living, plus a few rarer ones.  GPs are not trained to know about the rare diseases that patients present with, and this is where the problems can start.

Trying to inform your GP about your rare disease and the tests you currently need is often akin to tip-toeing through a volcanic minefield. Why is this? It’s rather simple. The majority of GPs have been conditioned to believe they know most things about our health. Repeated consultations with grateful patients reinforce this belief.

GP’s can occasionally become omnipotent. Faced with a patient who knows more than them about a certain condition (as we rarities must do in order to survive) can be threatening to their self-perception. They do not like to feel small, and may immediately and unconsciously deflect or project on to us.

When this happens, the patient comes away feeling a hypochondriac, or a time-waster. The patient shuffles away feeling awful and the normal power inequality is restored. What has just happened is rarely questioned, except perhaps in a therapist’s room.

How to Assert Yourself With Your GP

It can be very helpful to take a second when you feel talked down to and patronised. This is your moment to regroup and have another go. Remember these three simple steps – you could even write them down and read them before your consultation.

1. Hold your ground.

2. Repeat your requests slowly and clearly, in a non-defensive tone.

3. Remain measured and stay in adult mode.

Your GP will feel less threatened and reduce the superior tone. He or she will have no choice but to operate in ‘adult mode’ as well. This normally produces a win-win situation. You, I and our families lose when we walk away feeling stupid.

It is also critically important to research as much as you are able to, and make sure your information is correct, to help yourself. Fortunately, there are many great blogs available online, where people with a rare illness have described the same symptoms and GP frustrations as you. Try typing the name of your illness, plus the word ‘blog’, into a search engine: for example, ‘chronic fatigue syndrome + blog’.

Lastly, I recommend getting a book on assertion if it is hard for you to stay in control in difficult situations; alternatively, you can find some great internet resources on how to be more assertive in general.

Written by a guest blogger for Christine Tizzard Psychology (ctpsy.co.uk).

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