A topic that has seen a dramatic increase in attention over the past few years is Mental Health. What is it? How do we talk about it? What are the causes and symptoms? How do we address it?
Sure, mental health or mental illness is not a particularly pretty subject but it’s definitely important and there is a lot of ground to cover. More and more people are sharing their personal stories of going through mental health problems which is incredibly brave and even helpful.
Talking about your mental health with somebody you trust is the utmost important thing, and much needed in the process of recovery. One of the BEST decisions I ever made was get a psychologist. It did take a few tries but once I found someone I got along with, I actually looked forward to it. I mean seriously, I get to spend an entire hour talking to someone about my struggles without having to hear a damn thing about theirs. Its great!
But back to the public discussions. I’ve seen so many great examples of when mental health has been publicly (and thoroughly) addressed, and not just in news stories. Earlier this year in Australia we held the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System, which focused on “identifying and solving system-wide issues” with Victoria’s mental health services. The reason why a royal commission is such a big deal is because it is the government’s acknowledgement that mental health in Victoria is a serious issue that needs to be comprehensively examined.
I’ve noticed on social media platforms such as YouTube and Facebook, celebrities, influences and even regular members of the community are feeling more and more comfortable sharing their personal mental health journeys with the purpose of supporting others who might be going through similar issues by letting them know they are not along.
Similarly, more books, movies and tv shows seem to have themes of mental health woven into their storylines. Even the comedian Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix show Patriot Act; has recently aired an episode that tackles America’s mental health care system.
So yes, mental health is trending. Not only that, in my last semester of Journalism this year, one of my classes: Journalism Ethics, Law and Power, I complete a whole module on how to cover stories of mental health. So now I’ve become somewhat of an expert.
One of my assessments for JELP required me to write a ‘colour story’ (journalism jargon) on one of the topics we had covered during the semester which had to do with ethical considerations. I had to interview one journalist and get a story from them that demonstrated an ethical dilemma they have faced during their career. I was extremely lucky to score an interview with the one and only Mary Gearin – ABC sports journalist and newsreader. The story she gave me ended up surrounding the subject of, you guessed it, mental health!
Without reiterating the entire interview and subsequent article I wrote, I did learn quite a lot from Ms Gearin, not to mention I was super stoked that she agreed to speak to me at all. I found the subject of covering mental health in this course overall much more interesting than I had anticipated. The knowledge I got out of it I have found extremely useful and valuable now that I can use it to write as well as analyse media coverage of mental health.
I thought I might share some of my quick tips with you all today.
Top 5 things to remember when covering mental health
- Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy!
The number one lesson that Mary Gearin taught me was that accuracy is the most important thing. Particularly when we are talking about mental health, never ever publish any stories where you have not 100% confirmed all the facts. Apart from the fact that this is literally a clause in the MEAA Journalism Code of Ethics, accuracy is so important that it could mean the difference between a good journalist and a bad one. Get your facts right!
It’s important for topics like mental health that we get the terminology right, for example. If we are discussing a particular illness like Anxiety or Depression, then use those terms (make sure that if the story is on a person that you get their diagnosis correct) but always use the correct names of illnesses. It’s like that with disability as well. If a person has Autism; call it autism or ASD. If a person has Schizophrenia; call it Schizophrenia. There is no need for fluffing around.
- Leave out unnecessary details
When discussing particularly sensitive issues such as those of suicide, while accuracy is still important, some details are not and are much better left out. For example; the specifics of how and where somebody tried to commit suicide is not important. Suicide is already such a serious and loaded word that it doesn’t need any further describing in order to impact people and get the message across. We also have to be careful how we describe a suicide or suicide attempt. For example:
“John failed to commit suicide” is incorrect because it implies that he was supposed to succeed. A better way to put it is simply; “John attempted suicide”.
“John succeeded in committing suicide” is also incorrect and would be better stated; “John committed suicide”.
We want to be careful not to draw the wrong impressions about a situation so devastating (as it is of course devastating either way). Images and video are not necessary for these stories either!
- Don’t ignore the facts and stats
When covering mental health, keeping the facts and statistics in mind is crucial to achieving accuracy as well as remaining focused on the purpose of any story or article. Mental health is such an important subject because it affects nearly all of us. According to Mindframe about one in five Australians will experience a mental illness in any 12-month period. With 14% likely to experience an anxiety disorder and 4% likely to experience a major depressive episode. That means you or someone you know has or will experience a form of mental illness.
Due to the rise of technology and social media, causes of mental illness are often exacerbated. We also know that susceptibility to mental illness can be increased according to age, demographic, geographic location, socio-economic status, culture etc. That is why when discussing mental health and mental illness, it’s also good to outline other relevant and overlapping subjects (for examples, matters of the LGBTQIA communality if relevant). Identifying causes as well as solutions is key.
- Respect personal and private grief
When covering any traumatic situation affecting people directly, it goes without saying that as journalists we must always be respectful to those who are struggling or grieving. Don’t force interviews. Don’t invade people private space. And again, be mindful of how you tell a story because the last thing you want to do is add to somebody’s grief by publishing inappropriate, inaccurate or disturbing content.
- Provide information and solutions
You’ll notice at the end of every news broadcast’s story covering the subject of mental health or mental illness, the newsreader will often provide a short sentence at the end along the lines of “if you or someone you know has been affected by this story, please reach out to [insert number or web address for mental health service]”.
Sometimes no matter how careful we are when putting together a story, some people will still be triggered or struggling regardless. It is really important to provide help and solutions to people watching or reading these stories. When going through something at a particular moment, a person’s first response is not always to ‘get help’. Many people need to be reminded that there is help out there and providing numbers and other contacts can potentially save many lives. Always provide information for mental health services at the end of your stories!
It’s about time that we all realise mental illness and mental health are no longer dirty words or taboo subjects. Its time we speak up about such crucial issues so that nobody feels that they are alone and can’t get help. Journalists and media producers have a huge responsibility to make sure that mental health is addressed accurately and respectfully. I truly believe that the media has the power to influence huge change.
And in the interest of following tip number 5: if you or someone you know has been affected by this article, please contact one of the following mental health services.
Beyond Blue: beyondblue.org.au
Call: 1300 224 636
Call: 13 11 14
Kids helpline: kidshelpline.com.au
Call: 1800 551 800
Or reach out to someone you trust.