COVERING Sensitive Populations: People with Mental Disorders

Journalists have many considerations to take into account when covering a story or subject revolving around mental illness. There is a general lack of coverage in this area, and it often takes a tragedy or crisis for coverage to occur – creating an unfair association between violence and mental illness in the eye of the public.

In addition to avoiding the sensationalization of mental illness in breaking news, journalists need to be well-versed in their material and sensitive in their word choice, with the ultimate goal of avoiding stereotype and stigma and offering a fair and honest view of their subject.

Here are some best practices for working with this special population.

#1 – Do Your Research

There are dozens of conditions that can be classified as mental illness: anxiety disorders, which include everything from PTSD to OCD and specific phobias; mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder; and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. They also include tic disorders such as Tourette’s, eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, and addiction disorders. Each of these have their own biological and psychological basis.

When covering a story related to mental illness, be familiar with the particular diagnoses. Avoid describing all mental illnesses in a blanket statement, implying that they’re the same. Be specific – rather than “mental illness,” use the specific condition.

#2 – Choose your words carefully

People aren’t defined by their diagnoses. So avoid referring to someone as “an autistic” or “a schizophrenic;” rather, they should be called “a person with autism” or “a person diagnosed with schizophrenia.”

Avoid descriptions that invoke pity, such as saying the subject is the “victim” of a mental illness, or “suffering from” or “afflicted with” an illness.

Also stay away from insulting adjectives such as “psychotic,” “deranged,” “nuts,” “crazy” or “bizarre.”

#3 – Avoid Sensationalizing

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that approximately 1 in 4 American adults experience a mental illness in a given year. Yet despite its wide prevalence, we often only hear about mental illness in the media when there is a shooting or act of violence. In reality, the vast majority of people who are violent are not mentally ill; in fact, people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims, not the perpetrators, of violence.

The sensationalization and stereotyping of mental illness can discourage people from seeking treatment and encourage a negative, overly simplistic and inaccurate view of these conditions, only adding to the stigma people with mental illnesses already face. To prevent this, be sensitive in choosing photos and footage; avoid images of threatening, dangerous, or unkempt-looking people. Choose your words carefully, as outlined above. Finally, allow your subject to speak for themselves to put a human face to the illness and encourage understanding.

#4 Source Extra Carefully

When it comes to mental illness, even more than usual, you must avoid hearsay: refrain from quoting neighbors, passersby, and distant relatives, and stick to sourcing from health professionals or those who know your subject extremely well. Avoid interpreting signs on your own as being indicative of mental illness – that diagnosis must come from a health professional.

In a breaking news situation, if someone is acting or has acted irrationally or violently, avoid speculating that the cause of that behavior is mental illness until you have confirmation from a health professional or a reliable source. Consider if you need to bring up a subject’s diagnosis at all; is it truly relevant for the story?

Moreover, make sure you fact-check your sources thoroughly and include accurate diagnostic information and figures on mental illness in your story to illustrate the wider problem.

#5 – Incorporate Resources

If you’re doing a story that involves mental illness, include information on local hotlines or mental health resources. If someone who views your piece is inspired to get help, they have an immediate place to turn to.

Here are some work of journalism that incorporate these pieces of advice. Use them as inspiration and as a guide for proper mental health reporting.

Katherine Kam, a recipient of the Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship, wrote this series on mental health and Asian American youth.

New Zealand-born photojournalist Robin Hammond received the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography for his work on Sub-Saharan Africa’s mentally ill, featured here in Time’s Lightbox.

Depression: Out of the Shadows is a PBS Peabody Award-winning series on this condition that affects millions of Americans.

A Place for Jani, on the L.A. Times’ Framework, is a video about a child with schizophrenia.

Trapped: Mental Illness in America’s Prisons is a look at  the mentally ill in the American prison system.

Additional Resources

Team Up is a project that brings together journalists and mental health professionals to encourage better reporting. They have a great guidebook and style guide for journalists reporting on mental health and illness:

Mental Health America has a weekly roundup of what’s in the headlines regarding mental health. Use it to keep up with the news and find story ideas.

The AP has a new guideline for reporting on mental health.

The University of Washington School of Social Work also has some great guidelines and resources for mental health reporting.

Have any more tips or resources? Feel free to add in the comments!

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