Is Mental Health Being Stigmatised By The Media?

Mental illness will affect one in four of us in at any point in our lives – some as young as six years old. With such a high proportion of people being affected by these ‘unspoken’ issues, it’s worth taking the time to get it right.

Stories regarding mental health issues always make a good copy as it may affect you or someone you know. It causes debate and plays on emotions and causes you to feel angry, sad and at times, fearful when the headlines imply violent characteristics.

When done correctly (according to set guidelines) news stories can be a tremendous tool to help others. However, when not done correctly, this can lead to inaccurate headlines and misrepresentation which causes the stigmatisation in the media surrounding mental health. Overplaying a risk of violence can inevitably widen the gap of understanding, leaving a part of society isolated. They are portrayed as ‘not like you’ and ‘different’ – this view is continuing the ignorance surrounding mental health.

Equally important are the images used. A solitary figure, with their head in their hands, more often than not cast in dark, sombre lighting. These images after referred to as the “headclutcher” and have become a familiar sight in media portrayals of mental illness.

Charities and campaigners have, for many years, lamented the use of such imagery, arguing that people with mental illnesses do not always appear depressed. A campaign Time To Change (an anti-stigma campaign) run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness want to change the way health stories are illustrated in the media and have called it ‘Get The Picture’. Many believe this can enforce the ‘people never get better’ myth whereas some believe these types of pictures can be seen as ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’ – it is still very much a topic for debate.

A report by Mind said media coverage has a direct impact on the lives of people diagnosed with psychiatric disorders.  The charity surveyed 515 people suffering from a range of mental illnesses about their feelings on press coverage.

They found a total of 73% of respondents felt media coverage over the past three years had been unfair, unbalanced or negative whilst half said it had a negative effect on their own mental health with 34% feeling more depressed and anxious as a result. Because of the way these reports have been carried out, 22% felt more withdrawn and isolated with some even saying the press coverage made them feel suicidal.

Sue Baker of Mind said: “It’s tabloid coverage which gives us most cause for concern. They’re looking for snappy headlines which will sell papers and they inevitably go for ‘psycho’ angles. They present an inaccurate picture of the numbers of homicides actually committed by people with mental illness – the figure stands that less than 5% of homicides are committed by people with mental illness.

“I don’t think these newspapers realise how many of their readers are affected by mental illness or indeed how many of their readers they are potentially offending.”

Publications in the media which negatively discuss those with mental health problems as dangerous. In order to remove this stigma, journalists should be provided with guidelines where they can find information on mental health problems. They should be sticking to the NUJ guidelines or at least thinking of questions such as is ‘Is relevant to this story? Is this speculation? Is this implying all mentally ill people are violent?’

According to the NUJ Code, you should report on these matters sensitively, you should also never assume yet many people do. Headlines such as “Killer Pilot Suffered From Depression”, “Mentally Ill Freed To Kill” and “1,200 Killed By Mental Patients” in which the words “knifed to death by paranoid schizophrenic” were mentioned are not sensitive, period.

To make matters worse, The Sun mentioned in their article the figures in their investigations found “the killings were random “and that “189 mental patients committed suicide after having killed” painting the picture that those who are depressed, kill randomly before killing themselves and in turn, creating the fear factor they’re probably are looking to achieve.

When viewers see the misrepresentation of mental health such as anxiety and depression, it makes them feel as if the media are right – perhaps we are violent and unpredictable ‘psychos’. Because of this, it’s not hard to see why the stigma and fear remains.

Sited in the NUJ Code, you must use “medical terms correctly” and you cannot “assume links between mental illness and violence.”  Clearly tabloids don’t stick to these rules and more often than not, they tend to be negative whereas broadsheets tend to handle it more sensitively such as The Guardian compared to The Sun and Daily Mail. It however laughable that in 2015, The Sun set up a campaign called “Stamp Out Stigma” – despite being part of the problem.

Help should be offered within the article such as a phone number or website where people can seek help however it would be strange to do so if you’re always labelling them as ‘nuts’ and generally linking violence to mental illness, correct? Individuals with some form of mental illness are reported not on the individual themselves, but by their diagnosis – if indeed they have been diagnosed compared to being ‘diagnosed’ by the media.

For example, the German wings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately sought to crash the plane into the side of the French Alps, killing 150 people in the process. Unsurprisingly, this has been met in justifiable horror and outrage from the public and media alike, yet some newspapers jumped to conclusions linking depression with violence and murder. It must be noted that at the time of the crash, it was never confirmed he had depression, it was merely speculation. When it did emerge he had a history of depression and had been seen by a doctor, this played on the fears of the public, resulting in yet more widespread panic and further stigmatisation of mental health.

Eliminating the stigma and discrimination that surrounds mental health is an essential part of improving the quality of life and social inclusion of people who experience mental health problems. The media often perpetuates the ignorance and fear surrounding mental health problems through embellished and incorrect reporting. At worst, the headlines mentioned carry derogatory language such as  ‘nutter’, ‘killer’ or ‘schizo,’ whilst evidently linking violence and exaggerating headlines.

There is no doubt the media is adding to the stigmatisation surrounding mental health but within the past year, broadcasters and newspapers alike are thankfully sticking to guidelines and taking a stand to such nonsense and ignorant portrayals of mental health and people who are simply struggling.



  1. 28th May 2018 / 11:46 PM

    To me it feels like the media is now almost glamorising mental health. Spreading awareness is great, but it’s not making a difference. It’s just glorifying it! Amazing post xx

    • Sophie
      28th May 2018 / 11:49 PM

      Agreed! Mainly broadcasters make a difference but mainly online / print – based media are definitely glamourising it 🙁

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