Reporting and portrayal of mental illness


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Sabe AustraliaSANE Australia Guide to Reducing Stigma

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Reporting about a person with a mental illness

Reporting any story about mental illness

Specific recommendations for eating disorders

Promote help-seeking


Mental illness is common, with one in five Australians affected by mental illness in a 12-month period and many more impacted as family and friends.

Mental illness is a topic of public interest and the media is a major source of information for the community about the issue. Australian research shows that media reports involving mental illness are extensive and generally well-handled.

Mental illness is reported in a variety of ways, including public interest stories about mental health care, policy directions and the lived experience of mental illness. If positively framed, stories about mental illness can inform the community and be a powerful tool in addressing misconceptions and stigma associated with mental illness.

If reports are inaccurate, unbalanced or sensationalised it can reinforce common myths and impact significantly on people experiencing mental illness, making them less likely to seek help when they need it.

It is often a challenge for media professionals to report on mental illness, especially given the complexity of the issue and the need to do research quickly. It can also be a challenge to source people with a mental illness and their family members for interview because of the potential consequences for them of talking publicly about an issue that is still not well understood in the community.

The following 'issues to consider' have been developed to support media professionals to make informed choices about the language and images they use and the messages they convey when reporting mental illness. The following information should be used in conjunction with media codes of practice and editorial policies.

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HELPFUL WAYS TO PRESENT INFORMATION

Australian research shows that mental illness is reported frequently and is generally covered responsibly by the Australian media. There are a range of helpful ways to present or explore mental illness, such as:

• Covering mental illness sensitively and accurately can change public misconceptions, challenge myths and encourage community discussion about the issue

• Sharing stories of people who live with a mental illness can be powerful and these stories have been shown to reduce stigma

• Emphasising the importance of seeking help can lead to people connecting with support and treatment

• Exploring the impact of mental illness on family and friends, and providing information about specific illnesses, policy implications, and debates about mental health care delivery can increase community understanding.

  

Reporting about a person with a mental illness

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Consider whether mental illness is relevant to the story

  • Has it been confirmed by official sources that the person has been diagnosed with a mental illness? Are your sources reliable? Information you have received from a witness, neighbour or first responder to an incident may be inaccurate. Speculation about someone's mental health status contributes to stigma and discrimination.
  • Media guidelines and codes of ethics emphasise the right to privacy. Consider whether there may be consequences for the person's health and wellbeing if you disclose their mental illness.

Check that the representation of mental illness is fair and balanced

  • Ensure that your story does not exaggerate a person's illness or the effect mental illness has on their behaviour or life.
  • Mentioning the person's mental illness in the headline or lead can sensationalise the illness and reinforce stigma. Consider alternatives where appropriate.
  • Using photos or images that unnecessarily show people with mental illness looking dishevelled or otherwise 'different' can perpetuate stereotypes.
  • Seek expert comment or advice about the specific illness being represented.
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CONSIDER HOW TO PRESENT INFORMATION FROM POLICE AND COURTS

Australian research has shown that the most problematic type of news coverage about mental illness results from information collected at court or from a police incident.

• Many of these stories focus on violence and relate to specific and relatively rare circumstances. However, audiences are likely to make generalisations about people with a mental illness as a result of the coverage

• Check the relevance of mental illness to the story. Report a person's mental illness only where this has been confirmed by official sources and when relevant to the story

• Take care not to imply that mental illness was a factor in a story unless confirmed. Assuming that certain behaviours are associated with mental illness is often inaccurate and can perpetuate stigma

• The way a police or court incident is reported may contribute to the perceived link between mental illness and violence. Research indicates that most people with a mental illness have no history of violent behaviour and are more likely to be victims of violence

• Media can help community understand by providing context surrounding an incident involving a person with a mental illness. For example, where violence occurs it is often in the context of drug use, distressing hallucinations, a lack of treatment, or treatment that may not have been effective.

  

Interviewing people who live with mental illness

Sharing stories of people that have experienced mental illness can increase awareness, reduce stigma and promote hope. When interviewing someone with a mental illness, use the tips below. Interviewing a person with lived experience of mental illness requires sensitivity and discretion. While many people are happy to speak to the media, it can be difficult to talk publicly about a deeply personal issue.

Where possible, source someone who is supported to speak to the media. Many mental health organisations can now facilitate access to people living with mental illness, or their carers.

Be cautious about engaging with potential sources through social media as it can be difficult to tell someone's age or whether they are able to provide informed consent to participate in an interview.

Ensure there are no legal restrictions on interviewing or reporting about someone living with a mental illness. Seek legal advice or refer to the 'Other resources and reports' section of the Mindframe website for a summary of legal considerations.

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REPORTING ON A CELEBRITY'S MENTAL ILLNESS

If positively framed, stories about celebrities or public figures living with a mental illness can be a powerful tool in breaking down stigma associated with mental illness and can encourage others to seek help.

Celebrity stories can also trivialise the seriousness of mental illness by presenting it as entertainment or gossip. Before reporting, consider the reliability of your source and the language and images you use.

  

Reporting any story about mental illness

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Consider the language you use

Certain language can stigmatise people living with mental illness as well as present inaccuracies about mental illness or mental health care. Some suggestions about preferred language are provided below.

Issue QuestionMark Problematic Red Cross Preferred Green Tick
Certain language sensationalises mental illness and reinforces stigma Terms such as 'mental patient', 'nutter', 'lunatic', 'psycho', 'schizo', 'deranged', 'mad' A person is 'living with' or 'has a diagnosis of' a mental illness
Terminology that suggests a lack of quality of life for people with mental illness Referring to someone with a mental illness as a 'victim', 'suffering from' or 'afflicted with' a mental illness A person is 'being treated for' or 'someone with' a mental illness
Labelling a person by their mental illness A person is 'a schizophrenic', 'an anorexic' A person 'has a diagnosis of', or 'is being treated for' schizophrenia
Descriptions of behaviour that imply existence of mental illness or are inaccurate Using words such as 'crazed', 'deranged', 'mad', 'psychotic' The person's behaviour was unusual or erratic
Colloquialisms about treatment can undermine people's willingness to seek help Using words such as 'happy pills', 'shrinks', 'mental institution' Accurate terminology for treatments e.g. antidepressants, psychiatrists or psychologists, mental health hospital
Terminology used out of context adds to misunderstanding and trivialises mental illness Terms like 'psychotic dog', using 'schizophrenic' to denote duality such as a 'schizophrenic economy' Reword any sentence that uses psychiatric or medical terminology incorrectly or out of context

 

Seek expert advice

New information about mental illnesses, symptoms and treatments become available all the time. A story may be improved by obtaining the views of health experts or appropriate community leaders who can assist by providing accurate interpretation of statistics and placing situations or campaigns in context. For further information about health experts and contacts, go to the 'Story sources and contacts' section on the Mindframe website.

 

Be mindful of reinforcing common stereotypes

Balanced and accurate reporting has the potential to increase understanding of mental illness. However, stereotypes can lead to negative community attitudes and stigma. The table below shows myths and facts that can be used as a reference point.

Myths  Cross Facts Tick
People who are mentally ill are violent, dangerous, untrustworthy or unpredictable Many violent people have no history of mental illness and most people with a mental illness have no history of violence. People with a mental illness are much more likely to be the victims of violence and crime than the perpetrators
People are unable to recover from mental illness Mental illness is not a life sentence. Most people will recover completely and go on to live full and productive lives. There are various treatments available to enable people to manage their symptoms/illness
Mental illnesses are all the same There are many types of mental illnesses and many kinds of symptoms or effects
People who share the same diagnosis will have the same experience of mental illness Even though a particular mental illness will tend to show a certain range of symptoms, not everyone will experience the same symptoms. A diagnosis will tell you little about a person's ability and personal characteristics
Some cultural groups are more likely than others to experience mental illness Anyone can develop a mental illness and no one is immune to mental health problems. Cultural background may affect how people experience mental illness and how they understand and interpret the symptoms of mental illness
People with a mental illness differ in appearance to others in the community People with mental illness do not look any different from others in the community

 

Apply specific cultural considerations

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities prefer the term 'social and emotional wellbeing' to describe mental health.

Remember that no one person can speak for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Stories benefit from canvassing a range of comments from the mental health and suicide preventions sectors and those with connections to the local community.

Be aware of differences in language and communication styles for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and culturally and linguistically diverse populations. For further information, go to the 'Priority population groups' section on the Mindframe website

What about online? While evidence is still emerging, recommendations should also be applied to the online environment, including social media. Given the instant nature and potential reach of online posts, implementing procedures to monitor and manage message boards for posts that may be harmful or from people in crisis, is recommended. Online channels provide an opportunity for reinforcing help-seeking information.

 

Specific recommendations for eating disorders

Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses with serious physical consequences. Mindframe has developed specific guidance for the reporting and portrayal of eating disorders (available online here) which is briefly outlined below.

  • Present eating disorders as serious mental illnesses accompanied by physical consequences, rather than a lifestyle choice or part of an entertainment story.
  • It is useful to focus on the impact eating disorders have on the person and their family.
  • Include a diversity of images, such as people who are a variety of sizes and shapes, as using images of people with extreme body weights or shapes may motivate some people who are at risk to strive to achieve an unrealistic shape or size.
  • Discuss behaviours in general terms (e.g. purging) without reference to the steps taken, frequency of the behaviour or any implements used as detailing specific behaviours, measurements or quantities may prompt others at risk to engage in these harmful behaviours.
  • If someone is telling their personal story, it is best if they are supported by an appropriate organisation.
  • Take care NOT to label the person by their illness or to present eating disorders as glamourous or as an option for dealing with problems.
  • Consider how celebrity stories are handled and try not to glamourise the illness.
  • Eating disorders are a specialised field, so consult with recognised experts for accurate information.
  • Promote help-seeking by adding information about support services.  

Media IconPlease contact the Mindframe project team if you need further assistance:
Telephone: 02 4924 6900
Fax: 02 4924 6901
Email: mindframe@hnehealth.nsw.gov.au