Mental health reporting is changing

Coverage of the Raymond Taavel murder broke the mould in reporting on mental health.

By Ben Harrison

Coverage of Raymond Taavel’s tragic murder showed improvements in reporting on mental health. 

By Ben Harrison

Lady Justice statue in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo: Jonathan Moisan)

It was the type of morning when fog rises up early from the ocean. On April 17, 2012, Halifax was swathed in fog as police set up yellow tape in the area around Menz Bar. People walking home in the early morning were  first to hear of a man killed just outside the gay bar on Gottingen Street. Word trickled to the media just as reporters were starting their shifts.

Kayla Hounsell, a reporter at CTV, got a call from her newsroom. Raymond Taavel, a gay activist, had been killed outside Menz Bar. Someone had heard the suspect was a psychiatric patient at the East Coast Forensic Hospital, but no one could confirm it at that point.

“That was the moment when I knew there was going to be a lot more to the story,” says Hounsell.

Journalists face tough challenges when reporting on crimes involving people with mental illness. These challenges include the reporters’ limited knowledge about mental health, and an urge to deliver up-to-the-minute coverage about crimes. Delivering a breaking story about what happened and who is responsible can be difficult in crime stories involving people with mental illness, as the accused may not be in control of their actions or their thoughts. Reporting on crimes involving people with mental illness means facing the scrutiny of experts and advocates who work in that field.

The East Coast Forensic Hospital reviewed its release procedures following the April 2012 murder of Raymond Taavel. (Photo: Ben Harrison)

Slowly but surely, coverage of mental health is changing. Journalists know more about mental health than they did a decade ago, and that’s affecting how they tell stories. The media coverage of Andre Noel Denny, a man with schizophrenia who is charged with the second-degree murder of Taavel, is an example of changing habits in reporting on mental health.

The rapid pace of crime reporting means journalists want immediate answers to who committed the crime and what charges will be laid. Archie Kaiser, a Dalhousie law professor, says he’s seen it all before. His matchbox-size office is packed with high stacks of documents and folders all over the floor.

Kaiser has a long history of human rights work in Halifax, and was quoted many times during the Denny investigation. Kaiser says stories about mental illness aren’t given the attention they deserve, and he’s disappointed with how the media portrayed Denny.

“The media coverage has troubled me because they always seem to foreground the issues of confinement and coercion for this and other individuals like him,” says Kaiser. “They seem to quite readily omit the need to emphasize the presumption of innocence in any criminal trial, and also the legal and human rights of people who have been found not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder.”

A recent study at McGill University revealed that reporting on mental health in the Canadian media hasn’t changed in the past seven years. The survey results were presented by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Dr. Robert Whitley led the media survey that began in December 2005.

Whitley’s study collected newspaper articles that covered mental illness and violent crimes, spanning seven years of data. The articles were graded, with criteria including information about mental illness and how reports include the voices of those with mental illness.

“We looked to see if people with mental illness were quoted in the text,” says Whitley. “What we found was no change at all from any of those variables from December 2005 to the present.”

Whitley says it’s disappointing that his years of research didn’t find more change in the media.

“Our study began seven years ago,” says Whitley. “It’s going to take more time for attitudes to shift. It might take ten, fifteen or twenty years for those attitudes to shift. It didn’t take six or seven, which is what we were hoping.”

One of the factors separating the Andre Denny coverage from most stories about mental health is the amount of time spent on the story.

A 2007 study by the Canadian Mental Health Association said limited space in the news, both in word count and time for television, was a problem in Canadian media. The study also said journalists don’t have enough time to research mental illness in their stories.

The coverage of Andre Denny was an improvement on the status quo of reporting on mental health. Coverage of the story lasted six months and involved investigative work into the province’s mental health system. Stories moved from his violent behaviour to coverage of how the mental health system failed him, prompting a public inquiry into the East Coast Forensic Hospital’s release program.

The Chronicle Herald website broke the story at 6:18 a.m. on April 17 with a story about a man killed on Gottingen street.

Throughout the morning, news outlets around town filled in the details, first learning the suspect’s identity, and then that Denny had left the East Coast Forensic Hospital on a pass without returning. At noon a tweet from Phonse Jessome of CBC confirmed that Andre Denny had schizophrenia. Later, a CBC story cited court documents from Denny’s previous violent crime charge, bringing his violent past to light.

Over the next few days, many stories about Denny’s illness included graphic details about his behaviour, describing him as a “paranoid schizophrenic”. A National Post article drew attention to three incidents in September 2009 in which Denny uttered death threats, then stole a dog and injured the dog, leading to its euthanasia. Denny was not found criminally responsible for these incidents.

While stories from the first few days of the investigation looked at Denny’s violent past, a story from OpenFile’s Bethany Horne would turn the focus from Denny’s illness to the mental health system that failed him. Horne’s story was the first to ask why Denny was released that night, and how release procedures work at the East Coast Forensic Hospital. The East Coast Forensic Hospital would go on to review their release policies.

Horne says coverage of the Denny investigation is an example of changing attitudes in the media about mental health.“I do think people are getting better at writing about mental health, and about being aware about mental health,” says Horne. “It’s a direction the media has to head in, and it’s a direction that the culture is heading in also, to be more aware of the intricacies of mental illness and issues around it.”

While Whitley was disappointed with his results, they may be part of a Canadian mental health system that is only now targeting the media to eliminate mental health stigma.

In 2006, less than a year after Whitley began his survey, a Senate committee brought the first national review of mental health, mental illness and addiction to Parliament. The report addressed the important role the media plays in delivering “accurate and insightful information about mental health”. This would lead to the creation of the Mental Health Commission of Canada a year later. The Commission would go on to present Whitley’s study at a University of British Columbia symposium in 2012.

 

“If you look at other studies in other countries where there has been a change, in the U.K. and Australia, that change has taken a longer amount of time, 15 or 20 years,” says Whitley. “If you look at other illnesses, breast cancer for example, that used to be highly stigmatized in the media. People wouldn’t even use the term, they would call it ‘women’s issues’. It was the same with HIV/AIDS. It was stigmatized.”

Archie Kaiser says we don’t see enough “abstract” stories about mental health: stories about recovery and the health system. He says mental health stories only tend to appear after a violent crime involving mental illness has been committed. “The media can only learn so much about mental health in the context of a criminal investigation,” says Kaiser. “It’s entirely natural that there would be coverage of serious incidents, but it’s a question of how balanced that coverage is. In many cases, I feel it’s rather uneven and that it’s worse, it’s overtly discriminatory.”

Whitley’s 2012 survey revealed that 40% of stories about mental health focused on violence or criminality, while only 12% of the stories took on “an optimistic tone”. Mental health advocates in the U.K. say negative coverage in the media is detrimental to people with mental illness, leading to increases in anxiety and depression.

Part of what made coverage of the Denny investigation remarkable was an immediate response from friends and family of Raymond Taavel. Friends of Taavel made it very clear that anger should not be directed at Denny. In interviews, Taavel’s friends said Denny had a “vulnerable mind”.

On September 20, as Denny was scheduled for another psychiatric assessment, his mother, Janice Denny Paul, held back tears as she clutched a photo of her son and said, “the system failed him. The police failed him. And the mental health system failed him.”

CTV’s Kayla Hounsell says she had never seen such an understanding reaction in a story like this. “That put a more human face on that side of the story … when we heard from the family and saw that they were going through pain and grieving as well,” says Hounsell. “It was quite remarkable that his mother did that.”

Hounsell says she’ll never forget what friends of Raymond Taavel told her, the day after he had been killed. “They said, ‘Andre Denny is a victim too. He’s a victim of the system’.” I always thought that was really powerful that the friend of someone who was just killed, and someone who was grieving and angry, that they were able to recognize that. So much of what made the story so big and so significant was that there were two victims. One was the victim of the beating death, and the other was the victim of the system that failed him.”

 

Click on the arrows below to follow the daily coverage of the Andre Denny case. 

Published Jan. 2013