There is an established link between mental illness and media reporting. More than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of stress and vulnerability for example depression among audiences.
Covering mental health, mental illness and can change public misperceptions and correct myths, which can encourage those who are vulnerable or at risk to seek help. Research has also shown that young people often get their information on suicide from the media, and high-profile cases of suicide can sometimes lead to copycat effects.
The World Health Organisation has recommended toning down media reports as one of its six broad approaches to suicide prevention.
As a journalist, you should therefore place accuracy pretty high on our priority list, if not at the top. Selecting just the right word to convey meaning is always at the forefront of the journalistic mind, even when the deadline is pressing.
Language is all
So here are some signposts on the use of terminology when reporting on mental health matters.
Obviously, no intelligent, responsible journalist would use words like ‘psycho’, ‘loony’, ‘nutter’, ‘madman’, ‘schizo’ or ‘bonkers’ to describe someone with mental health problems. But there are a few more traps for the unwary. For example, people are discharged from psychiatric hospitals, not ‘released’.
They have not been in jail. They are sent to hospital for treatment not punishment. In the rare instances where someone with a mental health problem or mental illness commits a crime, it is important to recognise that the mental health problem or mental illness may have played a major role in their offence. A civilised society should not punish people for being mentally ill.
Bear in mind that many people experiencing mental distress delay seeking help because they are frightened of what they are experiencing and fear stigma and discrimination. You can help to reduce the stigma through the careful choice of words and encourage people to seek help early. For example, try to avoid writing ‘the mentally ill’. It is better to use mental health patients or people with mental health problems.
Avoid defining people by their mental health problems as in ‘he’s a depressive’ or ‘she’s a schizophrenic’. The mental health problem is only an element of that person’s life and this kind of reductionism is regarded as narrow and stigmatizing. It would be better to say ‘she has schizophrenia’ or ‘he has depression’, or ‘a person with’ which is clear, accurate and preferable to ‘a person suffering from. Also, referring to someone with a mental illness as a ‘victim’ or ‘afflicted by’ a mental illness is outdated and should be avoided.
There is still a great deal of confusion between the terms ‘psychosis’ and ‘psychopath’. Psychosis means a severe mental disorder typified by radical changes in personality in which thoughts and emotions are so impaired at times that the person can lose contact with reality. Psychosis is triggered by other mental or physical conditions, or as a result of alcohol or drug misuse. Psychosis is an acute, short-term condition that, if treated, can often lead to a full recovery. A psychopath is considered to have a severe form of personality disorder, who can pose a threat to others as he/she can be violent.
However, most people with psychosis are usually only a threat to themselves. Care should be taken when using these terms. In the mind of the general public, the term ‘psychopath’ is frequently associated with violence.