It’s estimated that 1 in 6 people in the UK experience some form of mental health problem each week with those as young as six years old suffering – that’s according to the Mental Health Foundation.
Stories regarding mental health issues have always made (and continue to make) great copy as it can affect you or someone you know. The situation is exacerbated by the media which causes debate and plays on emotions which may result in you feeling angry, sad and at times, fearful when headlines imply violent characteristics associated with mental health.
When done correctly (according to set guidelines) news stories can be a tremendous tool to help others. However, when written in poor taste, 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 part of society isolated. Those who are suffering are often portrayed as ‘not like you’ and this view only continues the ignorance which is why the subject is still very taboo.
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. An anti-stigma campaign ‘Time To Change’ run by mental health charities, Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, wants to change the way these stories are illustrated 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’, though both are very much down to a person’s opinion.
A report by Mind revealed 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, leaving them 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 Because of the way these reports have been carried out, 22% felt more withdrawn and isolated with some saying the coverage made them feel suicidal.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%.”
Publications in the media which shines a negative light on these issues are often dangerous. In order to remove this stigma, journalists should be sticking to guidelines such as IPSO (Independent Press Standards Organisation) or at least thinking before publishing if what they are writing perpetuates the idea that violence and mental health go hand in hand.
According to the NUJ (National Union of Journalists) Code, you should report on these matters sensitively. Headlines such as “Killer Pilot Suffered from Depression”, “Mentally Ill Freed To Kill” and “1,200 Killed by Mental Patients” are not in line with the code, nor are the words “knifed to death by paranoid schizophrenic” yet they were published for people to read.
To make matters worse, in an article by The Sun, it was mentioned that 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 looking to create.
When viewers see the misrepresentation of mental health, 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.
— Anti-Bullying Pro (from charity The Diana Award) (@AntiBullyingPro) October 27, 2015
Cited in the NUJ Code, you must use “medical terms correctly” and you cannot “assume links between mental illness and violence” – something the tabloids don’t do – unlike broadsheets who tend to handle it sensitively. 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 advice should they need it, however, it would be strange to do so if you’ve just labelled them as ‘nuts’. Readers must be made aware that people suffering are in fact more at risk of harming themselves rather than other people.
In 2013, the Associated Press added an entry to its ‘Style Book’ in order to guide journalists when writing about mental health. It stated that you should not “describe an individual as mentally ill unless it is clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced.” However in 2015 when German wings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed the plane into the side of the French Alps which killed 150 people, this was ignored.
Unsurprisingly, what Lubitz did was met in justifiable horror and outrage from the public and media alike, yet some 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, what the AP wanted to avoid. 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 widespread panic and further subconscious stigmatisation.
Eliminating the stigma and discrimination is an essential part of improving the quality of life and social inclusion of people who experience these problems. The media often perpetuates ignorance and fear through embellished and incorrect reporting. At worst, the headlines mentioned carry derogatory language such as ‘nutter’, ‘killer’ or ‘schizo,’ whilst evidently linking violence.
In any case, correlating such with mental illness will only isolate those who are in need of help. If the media don’t change the ways in which they report, society will continue to associate one with another, never learning how to distinguish between stereotypes and reality.