Reprinted from the "The Language We Use" issue of Visions Journal, 2018, 14 (1), p. 37
For the past decade, I have been leading a national study that looks at media coverage of mental illness. In this study, my colleagues and I at the Mental Health Commission of Canada have been working proactively with journalists, newsrooms and journalism students to improve the reporting of mental health issues.
We have travelled to journalism schools across Canada, giving educational seminars on mental health to the next generation of journalism students. The Mental Health Commission of Canada has also created a free online “mental health 101” course for journalists and journalism students. This course has been well used across the country. In 2014, our colleagues at the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma published Mindset, a short glossy booklet aimed at journalists and containing best-practice guidelines for reporting mental health issues. Over 5,000 copies have been distributed to newsrooms and journalists across the country.
What are some of the key messages that we are conveying to journalists in all these activities? First, we show how many of the stereotypes about people with a mental illness are inaccurate. For example, we note that most people with a mental illness make a good recovery when given the right services and supports. We also point out that people with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of crime than to be perpetrators.
Second, we emphasize that journalists should be especially careful in word choice when writing about mental illness. For example, we note that it is better to say “a person with schizophrenia” rather than “a schizophrenic,” as the latter falsely conflates the individual with the illness. We also note that words such as “crazy” and “psycho” are stigmatizing and should be avoided.
Third, we emphasize that suicide is a specific mental health issue, requiring especially responsible journalism. We encourage journalists to tread carefully around suicides, reporting only on newsworthy incidents, and then using this as a chance to educate and inform readers about pertinent social issues, suicide prevention and helpful local resources.
What effects have our activities had on how mental illness is portrayed in the media? Our analysis of trends over time indicates that the Canadian media have significantly improved their coverage of mental health issues in recent years, using less stigmatizing language and providing much needed social context in the discussion of mental health issues.1
Language has consequences. Journalists are increasingly realizing this, and many are now using their talents to educate and inform. This is a welcome development and may help reduce stigma and stereotypes about people with mental illness. This change may herald a climate of increased inclusion, understanding and empathy for people with mental illness.2
About the author
Rob is an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry, McGill University, and a research scientist at the Douglas Hospital Research Centre
Whitley, R. & Wang, J. (2017). Good news? A longitudinal analysis of newspaper portrayals of mental illness in Canada 2005 to 2015. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 62(4), 278-285. doi: 10.1177/0706743716675856.
This potential change is captured in a short vox-pop video recently filmed outside a major mental hospital. See www.youtube.com/watch?v=LawrwyBC8RA.