Mental illness in the media

Media IconOverall Summary

Clarifying the way in which the media informs and misinforms the public in an area like mental illness is particularly important, because community understanding of mental illness is less than optimal and stigma and discrimination are not uncommon. 

A critical review, Mental Illness in the News and Information Media, was conducted in 20121 to inform the development of resources for media and other sectors engaged by the Mindframe National Media Initiative.  The study was an update of an earlier critical review which examined how the media represents mental illness and the impact of that representation on attitudes and behaviour in the community2.

Research indicates that:

  • The media is an important source of information about mental illness, for both the general population and for people with a mental illness themselves;
  • Reporting inaccurate information about mental illness (e.g. linking mental illness and violence or using language which purports mental illness to be a ‘life sentence’) promotes stigma and perpetuates myths about mental illness within the wider community;
  • The presentation of negative images of mental illness in both fiction and non-fiction media results in the development of more negative and inaccurate beliefs about mental illness;
  • The presentation of positive images does not appear to balance negative media portrayals; and
  • Mass media campaigns (particularly if they include personalized stories) have shown some positive effects. 

mental illness in the news critical reviewMental illness in the news and information media: A critical review
Released: April 2012






Selected examples of individual studies are provided below:

  • An Australian study looking at the reporting of mental illness in newspapers found that the most common theme related to ‘disorder, crisis and risk’3;
  • Respondents to a South African survey of people affected by schizophrenia felt a high degree of stigmatisation and agreed they felt discriminated against. Those with higher qualifications felt the media had a negative influence on perceptions of mental illness4;
  • A German study found students who read a negative article about mental illness expressed more negative attitudes toward people with mental illness. Also the researchers noted a trend toward an increased desire for social distance among students with a higher TV consumption5;
  • Another German study investigated the relationship between media consumption and desired social distance towards people with a mental illness using a representative population sample. The researchers found that stories of people living well with mental disorders should become more commonplace in media reports as they can have positive effects on readers’ attitudes towards that population6;
  • Some New Zealand researchers reviewed newspaper items over a period of time and found only 5 out of 600 covering mental illness or mental health were written in the first person or from a journalist’s interview with somebody living with mental illness. The authors argued that these speakers offered qualitatively different depictions of mental illness in newspapers and the journalist’s presented them as credible sources7; and
  • A study by Australian researchers reviewed a number of media items from different media over a 12-month period. Findings indicated that depression is portrayed in the Australian media more frequently than other forms of mental illness8.

The Media Monitoring Project conducted in 2000/019 and 2006/0710 suggests that reporting of mental illness is extensive and that the quality of reporting is improving in Australia. Some of the key findings included:

  • In 2006/07 news reporting of suicide and mental health/illness by the Australian media was much more extensive than it was in 2000/01;
  • Inappropriate language remains a central concern in the reporting and portrayal of mental illnesses; and
  • News media reporting had an increased emphasis on items about individuals’ experiences and a reduced emphasis on policy and program initiatives.

Specifically, the study found the following changes in Australian reporting about mental illness:

  • The majority of items on mental illness did not stereotype people affected as violent, unpredictable, unable to work, weak, untrustworthy or unlikely to get better. However, 10.6% of items did stigmatise mental illness in 2006 compared to the previous rate of 14.3%;
  • Only 5.8% of items on mental illness used language that was negative or outdated as compared to 20% in 2001;
  • 16.2% of items labeled the person by his or her diagnosis rather than focusing on the person first and nearly one third of stories disclosed that a particular person had a mental illness and identified the person by name; and
  • Only 19.8% of stories provided information on help services available, however this was a significant improvement from 6.5% in 2001.


[1] Pirkis, J., & Francis, C. (2012). Mental illness in the news and information media: A critical review. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care.

[2] Francis, C., Pirkis, J., Dunt, D., & Blood, R. W. (2001). Mental health and illness in the media: A review of the literature. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care.

[3] Hazelton, M. (1997). Reporting mental health: A discourse analysis of mental health related news in two Australian newspapers. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 6(2), 73-89.

[4] Botha, U. A., Koen, L., & Niehaus, D. J. H. (2006). Perceptions of a South African schizophrenia population with regards to community attitudes towards their illness. Social Psychology and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 41, 619-623.

[5] Dietrich, S., Heider, D., Matschinger, H., & Angermeyer, M. C. (2006). Influence of newspaper reporting on adolescents’ attitudes toward people with mental illness. Social Psychology and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 41, 318-322.

[6] Angermeyer, M .C., Dietrich, S., Pott, D., & Matschinger, H. (2005). Media consumption and desire for social distance towards people with schizophrenia. European Psychiatry, 20, 246-250.

[7] Nairn, R. G., & Coverdale, J. H. (2005). People never see us living well: an appraisal of the personal stories about mental illness in prospective print media sample. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 39, 281-287.

[8] Francis, C., Pirkis, J., Blood, R. W., Dunt, D., Borley, B., & Stewart, A. (2005). Portrayal of Depression and other mental illnesses in Australian nonfiction media. Journal of Community Psychology, 33(3), 283- 297.

[9] Pirkis, J., Francis, C., Blood, R. W., Burgess, P., Morley, B., & Stewart, A. (2001). The Media Monitoring Project: A baseline description of how the Australian media reports and portrays suicide and mental health/illness. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care.

[10] Pirkis, J., Blood, R. W., Dare, A., & Holland, K. (2008). The Media Monitoring Project: Changes in media reporting of suicide and mental health and illness in Australia: 2000/01–2006/07. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care.