Coverage of mental illness is often inaccurate and unfair

Education, understanding helping some reporters do better work.

By Olivia Schneider

Education, understanding helping some reporters do better work.

By Olivia Schneider

Stephanie Duchon. (Photo: Olivia Schneider)

Anna Maria Tremonti spent an hour on the phone with a woman who wrote her an angry letter. On air, Tremonti, the host of CBC’s The Current, had said the woman’s son “committed suicide.” His mother was offended. You commit a murder or a crime, but her son wasn’t a criminal. It was important, she said, to say he had taken his own life.

“Part of me thought, ‘that language issue is really not my issue’,” Tremonti said, “but I called her, and I realized it really mattered to her.” 

Tremonti changed her language. She now refers to suicide as taking one’s own life. “It doesn’t change your ability to be tough on an issue to actually be sensitive on an issue,” she says.

Mental health advocates agree the words we use are important, especially when it comes to journalism. Journalists know how to pull a reader in. But pull often relies on the violent or the heart-wrenching. This leaves many important stories untold. And it’s important to understand why journalists don’t tell them.

Michael Kimber is a mental health advocate who graduated from the University of King’s College in Halifax with degrees in English and journalism. He currently lives in Toronto. In 2009, his personal experiences with anxiety and depression led him down the road to advocacy when he started writing a blog called Colony of Losers – Fuck Stigma and Mental Illness, I’m Like 25.

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“You don’t say I am cancer.”

– Stephanie Duchon [/pullquote]

Kimber agrees journalists need to be more careful about word choice. “How many times a day do you use crazy and not accurately use the word?,” he says. “Crazy is spicy chicken. It’s inconvenience on a phone call. It’s somebody whose emotions are interacting with you in a way you don’t like. To most people that’s a meaningless word, but when you’re depressed, you see that word as a comment on who you are.”

 Or even all you are. Stephanie Duchon, a student at the University of King’s College, has 10 years of personal experience with mental illness. She says saying someone has schizophrenia instead of calling them schizophrenic is important. “You don’t say I am cancer.”

But the problem with how mental illness appears in the media is about more than words. The content is often overwhelmingly negative. Greyhound Killer Thought Victim Was an Alien. Shootings Expose Cracks in US Mental Health System. Can We Demand Certification of Violent Employee’s Alleged Mental Illness? And that’s just what makes the headlines.

It is as if those with mental illness—the “problems”—are a population entirely apart from the rest of society—the “normal” ones.

Many people with mental illness feel this sense of isolation. Some don’t just feel isolated by society—they feel isolated from themselves. Kimber says his anxieties became “intimately familiar,” resting just below the surface. He tried everything to help himself. He stopped drinking coffee and smoking, ate better and exercised. Nothing helped. Anxiety and depression had become the companions he couldn’t leave behind. Eventually Kimber couldn’t even sleep. Looking for information on the Internet, he found very little, other than positive thinking.

Kimber says most stories on mental illness are negative, unfairly so. “Awareness almost always starts directly after one of the rare incidents when someone with mental illness actually kills somebody,” he says. “There’s always discussion that we need to talk about mental illness, and it’s like, why do we need to talk about mental illness directly after a massacre? Do you not understand that every time we do that it extends the lie that people who have mental illness are actually more likely to commit violence than have it perpetrated against them?”

The Canadian Mental Health Association says mentally ill people are two-and-a-half to four times more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence. Despite this, the American Psychological Association says 38 per cent of Americans would be uncomfortable having a person with mental illness move next door. And 58 per cent would be worried about working closely with someone who has mental illness. And these concerns are growing. In 2009, The American Psychological Association said that people are twice as likely today as in 1950 to think mentally ill people are violent.

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Professor Judy MacDonald’s office is in the sociology wing of Dalhousie University in Halifax. On either side of her door are large bookshelves stuffed with books on various subjects, including disabilities and women’s rights. She says her favourite class to teach is the course called Disability, Policy, and Practice, which is focused on the struggles those with physical or mental disabilities face. She is concerned over the portrayal of more severe mental illnesses. “I think mental health has been ghettoized,” she says. “We’ve presented the scary scenarios in the media. You know, it’s the young guy with schizophrenia that’s chopping off people’s heads. That’s the image that gets demonstrated in the media.”

Perhaps the ghettoization MacDonald refers to isn’t so much a reflection of how society stigmatizes mental illness, but the result of a flaw in journalism’s values. 

McGill University professor Robert Whitley leads an ongoing study called Mental Illness: Language and Content in News Media Coverage, paid for by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. So far, the study has looked at 11,000 news stories published from 2005 to 2011. He found that 40 per cent of articles about mental illness are actually about mental illness and violence.

Journalism’s news values are partly to blame for Whitley’s findings. Journalists focus on stories with twists, oddities and conflict. There’s a reason for the old journalism cliché, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Michael Camp agrees. He’s an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas in Fredericton, NB. Camp has worked as a journalist in both print and radio. “Journalists are always looking for things that are different or unusual, happening now, and that strike us as being a departure from the status quo.”

Important stories about mental illness are not always sensational. Camp wants to see journalists holding politicians accountable for money put into mental health care. For him, the coverage of mental health is, quite simply, inadequate. “Health care is a huge issue in our society. It’s just, for some reason, mental health isn’t put in that frame,” he says. “When mental illness does come up in a story, it’s usually dealt with in a shorthand kind of way, which is misunderstood by the journalists and by society. We just get to the telling part and we don’t get to the explaining part.”

Vicki Harvey. (Photo: Olivia Schneider)

Vicki Harvey is the community outreach coordinator at Autism Nova Scotia. The Autism centre is the hub of many activities, both educational and recreational. Harvey says anxiety and depression are common in people with autism and other developmental disabilities. She knows journalists need a hook to draw readers in, but she also worries the wrong information can add to the social stigma. “Someone who’s unfamiliar with mental illness might get a very negative impression that only fosters more negative responses to people with mental illness in our community,” she says. “ I worry about putting thoughts in people’s minds that weren’t there before.”

This isn’t just a failure on the part of individual journalists, but is indicative of problems associated with  changes in journalism. 

Toronto Star reporter Laurie Monsebraaten works the social justice beat. This means she often interviews and reports on people with mental illness. One of her favourite moments as a reporter was meeting the Dream Team—a self-titled group of people who have fought to improve housing for themselves and others affected by mental illness.  Monsebraaten says it takes time and practice to get comfortable interviewing people with mental illness. “There’s definitely a learning curve,” she says.

Monsebraaten thinks general news reporters often don’t get that chance. “I’m more aware of these issues because I’ve worked with the population on occasion, so I’m a little more mindful of it,” she says.

An article from the Nieman Journalism Lab called What Happens When the News Organizations Move From “Beats” to “Obsessions”?  discusses beat journalism. The article suggests beat reporters are better at making particular details accessible because they understand the material themselves. Today, beat reporting is changing. Beats connect, meaning it’s more difficult to specialize in one area. Journalists are also expected to be experts in various media. The rise of citizen journalism means audiences can turn directly to experts’ online content for information, instead of mainstream news. With fewer specialized reporters, the onus for information rests on journalists’ sources. But what if journalists aren’t finding the right sources?

McGill’s Whitley says fewer than half the articles in his study included the voice of someone who either has or is an expert on mental illness. Only 15 per cent of articles reviewed included the voice of someone with mental illness, while 25 per cent contained an interview with someone who was an expert in the field.

Monsebraaten says it can be difficult to find people with mental illness prepared to go on record. One reason has to do with the nature of journalism. Short deadlines are a bad fit for sources who might not be ready to talk. There’s no time to gain comfort or trust.  

Mental illness by the numbers.

Student Duchon says she became outspoken about her mental health history because she had the confidence to do it. It shows. Sitting in the busy King’s College student day lounge, Duchon doesn’t mince her words or appear concerned about others being in earshot. But her willingness to talk about having experienced mental illness is not common. Duchon says she knows people who choose not to disclose because they’re afraid of being stigmatized in their personal and professional lives.

A 2008 report paid for by Homewood, an organization that offers employee support programs, found that most people with mental illness fear being stigmatized. Negative news coverage of mental illness is one reason given for why the stigma exists. 

Sometimes journalists can’t use a source with mental illness because that person is simply too unwell. Several years ago, a man in prison contacted the CBC’s Tremonti to talk about his mental illness. He was ordered to take anti-psychotic medication to control his symptoms; otherwise he would remain incarcerated. The man was fighting this decision. Tremonti agreed to interview him. She says he was a brilliant man, but was clearly ill. “It became increasingly clear in the interview that he was deeply troubled and he was saying things that were deeply troubling, that would actually not help us understand anything, and would only be a humiliation for him,” she says. The interview never aired. “If putting them on the air doesn’t actually serve a purpose or teach anything, it’s not worth it,” Tremonti says. 

Camp says all these constraints mean journalists often turn to stereotypes to quickly create an image that’s not always accurate. “I just find that mental illness is kind of a wild card in a story,” he says. “The journalists don’t fully understand it, the public doesn’t fully understand it, but it’s a big bag in which you can throw all kinds of things to answer a question.”

Journalists need to do away with that bag.

The simplest change for journalists to make is to choose their language carefully in stories on mental illness.  Ingrained habits created by news values are harder to break, but some journalists are pushing to do it.  Changing society’s perceptions is hardest of all. As long as the stigma against mental illness persists, it will remain difficult for people to speak out.

But the untold stories about mental illness are important, and deserve to be told. “They tell the wider story and make people think,” Tremonti says, “and somebody out there will listen and think, ‘Oh my God, that’s what I’m going through, I’m not alone.’” 

Listen to Judy MacDonald on current practises for mental illness coverage: [audio:http://kjr.kingsjournalism.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Judy-MacDonald-clip-current-practices3.mp3]