Quick Guide for talking to the media about mental illness

Outlined below are some key issues that police officers and services should consider when interacting with the media where mental illness may be involved. These should be considered in all interactions, not just official statements.
Consider whether to make a comment

What does your media policy say about talking to the media? Make sure you know what it says about talking to the media about a person’s mental health status.

  • Ensure you are the most appropriate person to make comment and, if so, access support from your media unit.
  • If you do state or infer that a person has a particular mental illness, ensure that a reliable source has confirmed the diagnosis and you are not speaking only on the basis of observed behaviour.
  • Consider the potential impact that disclosing a person’s mental illness may have on the angle a journalist uses in the story.

Use appropriate language

Using the correct language is very important. Some derogatory terms such as ‘mental patient’, ‘psycho’, ‘schizo’ or ‘nutter’ can perpetuate stigma and discrimination.

  •  Ensure your language has described someone’s behaviour (e.g. ‘unusual’ or ‘erratic’) rather than implying something about their mental health (e.g. ‘crazy’ or ‘deranged’).
  • Do not label people by their illness. Someone may be ‘living with’, or have ‘a diagnosis of’ schizophrenia; they are not ‘a schizophrenic’.

Clarify language that could be misinterpreted

  • Police statements such as ‘detained under the Mental Health Act’ or ‘sent for a mental health assessment’ might not be well understood by a journalist and their audience.  These terms, while correct, could be misinterpreted without clarification.
  • Be careful when talking about a patient who has ‘absconded from hospital’. Will the journalist interpret this as ‘escaped’ with a connotation of ‘danger’ or threat to community safety?   Most patients who leave against hospital regulations are a risk to themselves, rather than to the public. 
  • Adding a clarifying statement, such as ‘the hospital is concerned for the safety of the patient’ could reduce the perceived link between mental illness and public safety. 

Ensure your interactions do not reinforce common stereotypes

  • The very nature of policing means that there tends to be some exposure to people in crisis situations. Consider how these situations may be handled to maintain the person’s privacy and dignity and reduce community fear.  Remember, all of your interactions can be scrutinised by the media and the broader community.
  • Consider whether your interactions might 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.
  • Is it appropriate to provide some context surrounding an incident?  For example, where violence occurs it is often in the context of drug use, distressing hallucinations or treatment that may not have been effective.
  • Can media access photographs or footage of a person with a mental illness interacting with the police? Consider the impact this might have. 

Refer journalists to the Mindframe website

Are journalists working with you aware of the Mindframe guidelines for reporting mental illness? These are available from the Media Professionals section of this website.

  • Recommend that journalists access the Mindframe website for appropriate helpline numbers that can be added to stories, as well as for contact details of mental health organisations that may assist with the story.   

Make contacts in local mental health services and units

  • Your local mental health service may have staff who are willing to comment on mental illness.
  • Is it appropriate for Police Media to make contact with the local health service to advise them about a potential story?  They may be able to provide information to the journalist that will affect the outcome of the story.
  • Most police services in Australia have created mental health intervention teams or something similar. If you’d like to know more about how your organisation is working to improve the relationship between police and people with mental illness, please contact the mental health teams in your organisation.