Cutting through the fake news

In an era of so-called ‘fake news’ growing alongside a renewed focus on reducing stigma around mental health, Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, tells NHE’s Josh Mines how journalists should be looking to cut through the noise and report sensitively and powerfully on this issue.

Over the last few years, there has been a monumental shift in the perception of mental health from both the public and the wider NHS.

Around 18 months ago, in February 2016, NHS England published its first-ever Five Year Forward View for Mental Health, which for the first time set out a long-term strategy for improving care for people suffering from a range of mental health conditions.

An industry which is instrumental in shaping the dialogue around mental health is the media. And as leading mental health charity Mind has found, print media reporting on mental health is now significantly more balanced and responsible than it was in the past.

“We’ve moved on an awful lot in the past decade or so, when you think back to headlines like the Sun’s ‘Bonkers Bruno,’” Mind’s CEO, Paul Farmer, told me.

“The profile of mental health has risen so much in recent years, and when you consider campaigns like Heads Together it’s no surprise that we see a much greater volume of coverage now than we ever have done.”

The growing profile of the Mind Media Awards

In November, Mind held its 2017 Media Awards, which seeks to recognise the good work done by journalists, filmmakers and the wider media to represent mental health in a high-quality, accurate and non-stigmatising way.

This year, the event was held in Leicester Square, which shows that mental health has never been more in the public eye and is now an important issue that is at last getting the coverage it needs. But sadly, there are still examples of irresponsible representations of mental health in the British press.

Back in July, Mind sharply criticised BBC Panorama after it made a documentary called ‘A prescription for murder?’ which made the argument that Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) were to blame for acts of violence in the US – specifically, a shooting that happened at a showing of a Batman movie in Colorado in 2012.

“We do still see insensitive and stigmatising coverage, quite often around particular issues or diagnoses such as schizophrenia or suicide,” Farmer continued. “The most recent research shows that coverage is fairly split down the middle when it comes to stigmatising versus anti-stigmatising, so there’s still a really long way to go.”

Dangers of a ‘media diagnosis’

In particular, what kind of practices should journalists, or anyone else discussing mental health publicly, focus on improving?

“We’d encourage journalists to only talk about mental health if it’s really relevant to the story and not to speculate about someone’s mental health, which is becoming increasingly more common in relation to terror incidents,” the CEO explained.

“Don’t try to provide a media diagnosis or encourage so-called ‘experts’ to do so. Fuelling discussions about people’s mental health without the full picture is incredibly unhelpful and counterproductive to the understanding of both the particular issue and mental health more generally.”

Language is also incredibly important when it comes to talking about mental health. Even in 2017, terms like ‘bonkers,’ ‘barmy’ and ‘psycho’ still crop up in reports about mental health, which is, quite obviously, the wrong way of describing anyone with a potential condition.

Equally, Farmer advised against “using terms like schizophrenic or depressed – it’s better to talk about a person with schizophrenia or depression.”

Talk, listen, learn

But as in healthcare, talking, listening and sharing the stories of people living with mental health conditions is a vital element of good reporting.

“Speak to people with mental health problems,” Farmer advised. “They are the experts in their own conditions, and whether it’s through giving their story a platform or including them in your research, people with experience of mental health problems can bring so much to your coverage.”

According to him, the media’s impact cannot be overstated, and the consequences of reporting mental health in the wrong way can be serious.

“Lots of people tell us that the stigma can often be worse than the mental health problem itself, and the media can perpetuate this,” Farmer continued.

“We see sensationalist journalism overplaying an association between mental health problems and violence, and this promotes fear and can lead to friends or neighbours assuming that someone with a mental health problem is dangerous. So irresponsible reporting has a real, tangible impact.”

Both the print and broadcast journalism regulators, IPSO and Ofcom respectively, have guidance for how journalists should conduct themselves reporting on people in distress, including those with mental health issues, and there are now strict rules on how to report on sensitive stories like suicide and self-harm.

Farmer reiterated the importance of sticking to these regulations, as a failure to abide by the guidelines could have a devastating impact.

“Journalists can do a lot for suicide prevention by not going into excessive details around method or location, signposting to reputable sources of advice and support, and not oversimplifying reasons that people might take their own lives,” he said.

“The conversation has moved on a great deal in recent years but, for all the great work to improve things, irresponsible reporting still increases misunderstanding about mental health.”

When done right, responsible, accurate and enlightening journalism can have the power to disprove myths and shine a light on an area where there is still a desperate need for powerful reporting. Journalists should never underestimate what can be achieved through an effective investigation, and also what can happen if proper precautions are not applied.

“The media plays such an important role when it comes to informing public perceptions of mental health, so responsible reporting can achieve a huge amount,” Farmer concluded.

“Good reporting can help to raise awareness, challenge outdated attitudes and dispel stigmatising myths. And for people with experience of mental health problems, it provides a much-needed voice and a platform to speak out.”



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