Language and framing
As a reporter, your depictions of mental health difficulties and suicide are an important element in shaping how the public understands the issues and how relevant agencies devise strategies to advocate and reduce stigma.
The role of the media in the production and reproduction of stereotypical portrayals of mental health difficulties and suicide has been of concern for a number of decades.
However, relatively little research attention has been paid to date to the process through which stories on mental illness and suicide are produced by journalists.
While reporting about a Mental-health related story, the following questions are key
- Is mental illness relevant to the story? If it is not meaningfully linked to the story, there is no need to mention it.
- What is your source for the mental illness diagnosis? Don’t rely on hearsay. If someone’s mental health condition is relevant, make sure your source knows with certainty the person’s diagnosis.
- What is the most accurate language to use? Avoid using derogatory words, and be as specific as possible when describing someone living with a mental illness to help prevent stereotypes.
The Dos and Don’ts
Do start with a goal for your mental health content
As a journalist, before setting out, start by outlining the purpose of your piece. If your goal is to have readers identify with someone’s experience and seek help, consider telling a patient story.
By starting with a purpose, you’ll know when the content veers away from your goal and may need editing or a new approach to stay focused.
Do use credible sources
You can create clinically accurate content by starting with credible sources. Professional organizations often lead the charge in creating awareness and conducting research in their area of focus.
Do include details on how to get in touch with professional help
Even when you use good sources, your mental health posts are never a substitute for medical advice. While mental health content provides general information, every person with mental health issues is unique and needs individualized care.
Always include resources for people who want to seek out mental health help, whether that is contact information for a professional or instructions on what to do in a certain scenario.
As we continue to build greater mental health awareness in our communities, we want to inform not offend.
Research shows that people with mental health issues face discrimination, making it difficult to find work, maintain long-term relationships, live in decent housing and be socially active.
Words are powerful tools. They can help dismantle mental health stigmas that affect people’s well-being. Here are some ways you can avoid perpetuating harmful mental health stereotypes in your content.
Don’t limit people’s identities to their mental health
People are not their diseases. For example, instead of saying “she is obsessive-compulsive,” use “she has obsessive-compulsive disorder.” Likewise, instead of saying “the mentally ill,” refocus to “people with mental illness.”
Don’t turn people into victims
Mental health content should create awareness, not pity. If you use words like “suffers from,” “victim of” and “battling,” you suggest that people with mental illness are victims. Instead, keep it neutral and clinically accurate by focusing on the facts: “he has schizophrenia.”
Don’t use derogatory phrases
Words like “crazy” and “insane” may still find their way into the common vernacular, but they have no place in your mental health content.
They are derogatory terms about mental health that you should avoid in all your content, not just mental health posts.