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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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