How to Report on Mental Illnesses

Date: 31 July 2014

Region: Worldwide

mental_healthWhy is depression not discussed in the same manner that cancer is? Does anyone in the media ever talk about the flu in the same way as a pain in the arm? So, why the journalists treat bipolar disorder and schizophrenia as the same thing? Reporting on mental health as a single category is one of the problems of the media coverage. Linking mental disease and violence is also a common mistake.

In order to improve the media’s communication on mental health issues, The Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, in association with CBC News, has published a guide for journalists in order to help them receive more reliable and less biased information on mental illness.

This document remarks that it is common among journalists to think that avoiding the subject of mental illness helps to avoid its stereotype, which creates a hostile environment, complicates access to medical treatments and to the labour market and often destroys patient’s relationships with family and friends.

However, there is nothing like invisibility to make someone feel isolated and incapable to ask for help in a public space, which does not deal with these matters, and as a result of this, mental health issues seem to be unknown to most people.  In the end, is this invisibility not another way to stereotype?

In the opinion of André Picard, health columnist in the Canadian journal The Globe and Mail, in order to solve the absence of stories on mental illnesses, or their inaccuracies, it would be enough if journalists were as willing to write about mental illnesses as they are to write about physical illnesses.

Most of the news in the media involving mental illnesses is about tragedies that occur. It is rare to find information on how normal life can be for people who have a mental illness.

Nevertheless, the guide insists on the fact that most people with mental health issues are more likely to become a victim of violence than a perpetrator. To avoid this image, Reporting on Mental Health encourages journalists to pay attention to mental health in general, rather than just when an incident occurs; reporting on mental health treatments, research or daily issues of people with mental health problems could be a good place to start.

Furthermore, the guide motivates readers to think about other diseases that the public do not normally tie to mental illnesses, such as anxiety or addictions (alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, etc). Addictions result in physical changes to the brain, so, because of this, it is also considered a mental health issue.

Although it focuses on Canada, the guide is an interesting tool for any journalist regardless of where he or she is based. It is very easy to read and understand thanks to its advice and best practice checklists on diverse subjects around mental illnesses and journalism, such as how to carry out an interview or to cover a suicide.  Besides, professionals and people who are interested can further their knowledge of the subject by visiting the project’s website where they can find more detailed content, resources, video interviews and an updated list of events related to mental health.