The subject of mental health can be, at best, a difficult one to talk about, and indeed, report on. Many a portrayal has been made about mental health and its conditions, from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression to anxiety and agoraphobia, many albeit inaccurate, which has been the subject of criticism by viewers, readers and media consumers alike.
Education on these subjects is important, and in the digital age, where media diets reflect habits online and on social media, there are many ways to get that education.
So what is the best way to go about it? As part of a two part series examining mental health coverage in the digital age, Kettle has been looking at how it is approached not just in the UK, especially on social media, but also how it can be portrayed in other countries. In this circumstance, we looked at the available guidance in Canada and the United States.
More than just words
Various organisations have issued guidance on how to best approach the subject, either independently from health organisations in those two countries, or in partnership with the media.
In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline has published resources, and the Entertainment Industries Council, based outside Washington, has worked with the US government and the wider entertainment community when it came to the portrayal of mental health.
The Associated Press news agency also made an entry in its style book on the subject.
“This isn’t only a question of which words one uses to describe a person’s illness,” said Kathleen Carroll, the Senior Vice President and Executive Editor of the AP, in a statement announcing the entry. “There are important journalistic questions, too.”
Outside of media guidelines, the Carter Centre, named for former US president Jimmy Carter and based in the state of Georgia, holds fellowships for journalists covering mental health.
— The Carter Center (@CarterCenter) May 18, 2015
In Canada, guidelines came from the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, as part of a collaboration with the public broadcaster CBC with assistance from the Mental Health Commission of Canada, known as Mindset.
In Mindset, André Picard, a health correspondent with The Globe and Mail newspaper, considered the role journalists should have when it came to these conditions.
“So what is the role of journalists and editors in tackling the stigma that invariably comes along with these diagnoses?” Picard wrote according to an excerpt published in the Globe. “Is our role to sit back, observe and report dispassionately on this sad state of affairs, or to proactively set out to bring about social change? The short answer is: a bit of both. The single most influential change that the media can (and should) make is to start treating mental illnesses the way they do physical illnesses: With curiosity, compassion and a strong dose of righteous indignation when people are mistreated or wronged.”
The right facts for the conversation
Internationally, whether writing from the UK, the US or elsewhere, the issue of covering mental health in the social media age is still one that is debated.
“Social media brings visual imagery immediately to us, and then brings 140 characters to us,” said Marie Gallo Dyak, Executive Vice President of Program Services and Government Relations at the Council, in a telephone interview. “The snapshots are immediate and impactful. We want to encourage careful and thoughtful conversation. Social media can do that. It complements other forms of communication – it’s a huge part of the conversation.”
But yet no matter the medium, the idea of covering mental health without stigma, according to the Mindset report, remains the business of journalists, near and far.
“Stigma has no respect for facts,” the report says. “That, if nothing else, makes it our business as journalists to try to set the record straight.”
Part two of this piece, looking at social media’s effect on mental health coverage in the UK and the guidelines to best report it, is forthcoming. Have your say on mental health coverage in the comments section below.