How UK media stigmatises mental health

Health, mental health, Newspapers, Media, Responsibility, Matt Woosie, Journalism, Depression, Germanwings,
Written by MattWoosie

The Deputy Prime Minister has signed a charter aimed at reducing stigma and prejudice around mental health. The Government recently announced an extra £1.2bn in mental health funding, and overall it seemed that the perception of mental health was moving in the right direction, people were being progressive at last.

However, the front pages of several newspapers last week and this, led with stigmatising phraseology surrounding the mental health of Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot on the Germanwings flight which crashed into the French Alps, killing all those on board.

My thoughts go out to all of those who are affected by the events, and sincerely hope they can all find closure and comfort soon.

The co-pilot is believed to have experienced mental health issues at some point in his life, possibly at the time of the flight. It is understandable that the press should seek to speculate on what role this played in his decision making, but what is utterly unacceptable are the misleading headlines written as a result of it, and the simplistic narrative being peddled.

Newspaper headlines

‘The Sun’ led with the headline “MADMAN” referring to the “crazed co-pilot”, whilst the Mirror’s front page splash screamed “KILLER PILOT SUFFERED FROM DEPRESSION”, as if to say that anyone with depression would be inclined to intentionally crash a plane and take the lives of 150 others, simply because they experience depression. If that were not disconcerting enough, the Mail asked the question “Why on earth was he allowed to fly?” That is the most dangerous headline of all. It is unclear as to whether the pilot was indeed experiencing depression at the time of the flight, but to claim a person with a history of mental health issues should not be allowed to do their job amounts to discrimination, so much of which pervades society already.

Mirror headline, depression, kettle mag, Matt Woosnam

It would be concerning enough were one of my friends to express such views in the pub on a Friday night after a few drinks, but the press has a moral duty to take care it does not harm people in its position of power, but for the sake of money via the sale of newspapers, morals and understanding are thrown out the window.

Press responsibility

Why is it such a problem? Quite simply, it is incredibly dangerous to make sweeping generalisations about people with depression, which these papers do through implication. They imply that depression is the sole reason for the crash; and that anyone with mental health issues is likely to have murderous intent. This is obviously ludicrous. People with mental health issues are more likely to be victims of violent assaults or violent acts, than they are the perpetrators. But the issue here is that it is dangerous because it alienates people with mental health issues.

We need a progressive outlook towards mental health. Talk is cheap. Successive governments have neglected mental health. Indeed, one only need take a look at how empty the House of Commons was in 2012 during the first ever debate on mental health in Parliament, to realise the contempt with which mental health is held by those with the power to change things.

A societal problem

As a journalism student who has experienced mental health issues, I read a feature in my University’s newspaper last year on a student experiencing mental health issues who self-harmed. The headline described in relatively intricate details the tools with which the student used to harm themselves. When I challenged the lecturer who oversaw the publishing of the paper, he said that it did not breach the Editors’ code and therefore it was not a concern. He also seemed to believe that the press got the coverage of Robin Williams’ death spot on. Needless to say, I disagreed. But this is the type of attitude from someone who works for a newspaper which is unhelpful. Although the piece contained the phone number for the Samaritans, and was written relatively sensitively, it was still concerning.

The coverage of mental health in the UK press must change. This is not about being “offended”, it is about being concerned about the impact it has on people who are considering how to first open up, and take that step towards recovery by talking about their mental health. The Guardian’s continued work on mental health is to be commended, but more should follow its lead.

Time to talk

It’s OK to talk about mental health, but until there is a genuine consideration about the portrayal of mental health amongst those who hold power in the UK, people will still be afraid to talk. That is wrong. Having a mental health issue does not mean someone is going to crash a plane or endanger others, and we must treat people with respect and compassion, and we must let them know it’s OK to talk about mental health.

If you would like to speak to someone confidentially you can contact the Samaritans by email at or by phone on 08457 90 90 90

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