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The media is the message: The role of journalism in mental health advocacy

Cover of Mindset: Reporting on Mental Health toolkit - network nodes superimposed on top of a camera lens

Last week, Cliff Lonsdale of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma introduced Mindset, a toolkit for journalists on reporting on mental health.

It was a good step forward in improving our collective understanding of mental illness, changing attitudes and eliminating the stigma and discrimination that prevent people from seeking the help they need.

The toolkit addresses the use of language, the engagement of people with lived experience, the complexities of mental disorders and the intersection of mental illness and the criminal justice system.

In today’s 24/7 news cycle it’s far too tempting to look for the easy way out, to write the quick story and to promote the sensationalized headline to captivate audiences. This poses a dilemma for a complex health issue.

We know that crime and violence are considerably over reported given how rare these behaviours are for people with a mental illness. People with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence.

We know that recovery is possible. With care and support, people can live fulfilling lives. Investing in the social determinants of health like housing and employment can make a big difference.

We know that none of us are immune. One in five of us will be affected in our lifetime. Are we giving mental illness the same airtime as physical illnesses?

And we know that the antidote to stigma is proximity and understanding. It’s human nature to fear what we don’t understand. Talking to people with lived experience and getting the facts and evidence helps break down the stigma.

Influence of the media

While we all have a role to play, media is a major influencer in changing attitudes and public policy. Media channels saturate our lives each and every day and journalists are key opinion leaders.

In his foreword, André Picard says about writing on mental illness:

“It provides us with a rare chance to bring about meaningful social change alongside a golden opportunity to better journalism.”

In my view he hits the nail on the head. Mental health is the health issue of our time, it is a burgeoning economic issue, and, it is the social justice issue of the century.

>> Also see: Why a journalist’s words matter when reporting on mental health

A few weeks ago, Susan Delacourt, Toronto Star journalist, gave a compelling speech at the Annual Public Policy Forum dinner upon receiving the prestigious Hy Solomon Award for Excellence in Public Policy Journalism.

She spoke of the responsibility of journalists to:

  • Mind the great information gap
  • Inform the public on the important issues of our time
  • Recognize and overcome the tension of entertainment versus public service journalism

Susan’s words were playing back to me last week as Mindset was unveiled. If we are to drive social change, influence public policy and build an effective system of mental health care, we need all hands on deck.

We need to mind the information gap. We need to tell truthful stories with compassion. And, we need evidence to trump sensationalism.

What are some of your favourite examples of reporting on mental health issues? 

One Comment Post a comment
  1. I think that the most important part in media reporting on mental illness is that the true stories are told neither sensationalized nor sugar- coated. We need to know about the fact that there are too few inpatient beds. We need to know when someone dies by their own hand in a facility when they are not yet stabilized, and are supposed to be under serious observation 24/7. WE need to know when someone dies because they were not admitted to hospital when they needed it .We need to know about such tragedies in order to make improvements to the system. Advocacy for those who are suffering from a serious mental illness must be a question of compassion, care and telling about the nature of the these illnesses. There is far too much confusing marketing especially misusing statistics, which in the long run will not improve necessary care and services for those who are most seriously afflicted. Patricia Forsdyke.

    July 7, 2014

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