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Sunday, 30 August 2009

The Media and Mental Illness

It’s about time the media took seriously their responsibilities towards people with mental illness.

A badly worded story can do far reaching damage to sufferers and their families, and yet some newspapers and television journalists are insensitive beyond belief.

One of the newspapers that circulates in our local area disgraced itself last week be printing large photographs and stories featuring a man whose actions may have pointed towards him suffering a mental illness. In fact the newspaper story stated that an ambulance later took the young man for psychiatric assessment at the local hospital.

The young man was not doing anything consciously threatening, terrible or destructive. He was simply acting in a way about which he may have been unaware and which he probably wouldn't want published for all the world to see.

And yet the newspaper, the Tweed Daily News, chose to spread this embarrassment all over the front of its week-end issue and spilled it to fill most of an inside page. Thankfully, these pictures and stories attracted condemnation from the general public, and from the journalists' peers.

The Daily News is published in the Tweed Valley on the North Coast of New South Wales in Australia.

I’m not going to repeat the crime here by reproducing evidence of this cruel act, but I do wish to chastise the newspaper for being self-serving, ignorant and extremely clumsy, to say the least.

Media too often feeds on sensationalism, and time and again sells newspapers and explodes ratings at the expense of unfortunate people. It was great to see the public reaction this time was the absolute opposite.

However, the Daily News is certainly not alone in displaying insensitivity, even though their example was astonishing.

Surveys of Australian media have shown that one fifth of items on mental illness still used language such as "cracked up", "crazy lunatics", "nutcase", "a psycho" and "mental hospital".

In 50% of cases, the method of self-harm in reporting of suicide was described in detail. This is despite recommendations that the method of suicide not be described less copycat behaviour result.

Sane Australia is an organisation doing great work in this area, attempting to educate the media about how to approach this fraught subject without doing damage.
Its web site can be found at

Featured is Sane’s Stigma Watch programme which monitors media portrayals of mental illness and suicide, to ensure that they are accurate and respectful. If they’re not Sane tells them so, and suggests educational programmes to stop it happening again.

The Australian Government’s Mindframe National Media Initiative has a stunningly good web site. Mindframe was produced to inform appropriate reporting of suicide and mental illness, to minimise harm and copycat behaviour, and reduce stigma and discrimination.

It was developed with the assistance of media professionals, suicide and mental health experts and consumer organisations.

One section discusses the portrayal of these issues on the stage and screen in Australia.
There are also resources for media, police, courts, and health professionals. See

Personally, I’d also recommend these sites to every person interested in helping others cope with mental illness. To understand the issues, and spreading the word are themselves priceless contributions.

Wiping out stigma is a major concern if we are to reduce the impact of mental illness in our communities.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation television programme Media Watch last night featured criticism of the Tweed Daily News stories and photographs.

Presenter Jonathon Holmes called the newspaper 'a little rag'.  The programme carried comments from the young man's father who also castigated the newspaper and confirmed that his son suffered a serious mental illness.

He said the young man had hoped the news team would help him, and was upset when they didn't.

The father said his son saw the articles and went missing for four days.  He was subsequently admitted to the local psychiatric unit for treatment.

Perhaps the Daily News may now begin training their staff about respect for mentally ill persons.

Perhaps they will make mandatory the study of the Australian Government's superb website Mindframe -

Do you know why it is not acceptable to call a person ‘a schizophrenic’?

Could bad media reporting result in a person with mental illness committing suicide?

Did you know that 20 per cent of Australians experience some form of mental illness at some time in their lives, and that this figure is repeated in many other nations?


  1. Taking advantage of a medium in a corrupt and hurtful manner. Truly they don't have a conscience!

  2. That was a great post. As parents of two daughters DX with Bipolar Disorder, we sure know the heart ache that goes with the stigma. We have been well educated in helping our daughters deal with this and thank goodness they both a living stable lives socially and professionally. Thanks

  3. The media can be devastating.Hence it needs to act responsibly given the impact it can have.

    Lives can be built or broken by the media.

  4. South Africa's a lot like that in mindset too, or at least it used to be. Not sure what it's like now (I've been away 8 years).

    Sad how those with mental illness still get treated with such less compassion and/or understanding than physical illness. :-(

  5. Hi June, I think bad media reporting results in a lot of things other than just suicide by the mentally ill. So many times they twist and change stuff and cause bad results just to get a "scoop"! They have taught children how to make bombs, caused suicides, and created horrible thoughts and actions by their reporting. Their insensitivity to the mentally ill and to their impressions on our children certainly needs to be stopped.

  6. I think you are being very generous with your 20% number....I think nations all over the world have these same tragic illnessess and irresponsible reporting of them. Somehow June I think we all at one time or another in our lives will be touched by or deal with mental illness. Must be more we all can do....just what and how are the we must find the answers, all of us.........:-) Hugs

  7. Working in the addiction field and working closely with my colleagues in mental health, I am so well aware of the stigma. And the media is, in my opinion, one of the biggest negative influences in the world. Which is why I quit the newspaper business two years into it.

  8. Good post. We certainly have our share of people with mental illnesses in the U.S., and have been sadly lacking in compassion for them. It seems to be a worldwide problem.

  9. Hi Vancouver
    I think the trick is for us not to let them get away with it. Writing a letter to the editor, or reporting in to a group such as SANE is a good start. At least we've done something!

    Your family members are giants for getting through to where you are today! My heartfelt congratulations.
    That's one of the sadnesses about mental illness - in most cases it is possible for sufferers to live a fruitful life, with support, treatment and facilities.
    Problem is, these things are not always available.

  11. NSIYER
    And they are being broken in some way every day of the week. Some instances are very public in their effects and others are a question of silent suffering.
    I was certainly impressed with your latest post on the Indian justice system ... congratulations.

    Yes, we get chest pains and we're rushed to hospital for good treatment. Human beings get hallucinations and delusions that can send them to the edge of suicide and financial ruin, but they often find it very difficult to even get in the door. What is crazy I ask myself.
    I hope your own physical illness is resolving itself ...

  13. JUDY
    Wise words as usual.
    I think my take would be that at least children generally have their parents as a protective force on their side, nurturing and educating. People with mental illness and their families are often forced by stigma to be still in their misery ...

  14. BERNIE
    It IS such a huge problem - bigger than most of us realise. These days we are beginning to recognise when someone is in trouble - but many still don't realise that when a work mate is acting strangely there may be something else at play. Or at school, among neighbours, down at the shop ... Early intervention is just so important.

  15. Hi Butler and Bagman
    So much depends on the individual journalist of course - I was able to write what I believed in almost throughout my career in journalism. It was when the proprietor moved in with a big political stick that I left too. To work for a major Sydney hospital as its public relations manager.

  16. I don't think the paper or televised media decalres any responsibility any more. Very sad.

  17. Good post. The media produce these articles to sell papers and sadly plenty of people buy them.

  18. BETTY
    It is most certainly a world wide problem, and mores the pity. Sufferers of mental illness and their families are least able to fight for their rights, given their burden of stigma within the community, in many nations anyway.

    We should never give up! All businesses need to give service if they are to expect loyal clients.
    I reckon we should make sure they know how we all feel about this type of thing. Write letters to the editor, or buy another newspaper.
    I'm pleased to say that I have learned that our Australian Broadcasting Corporation will tonight air a criticism of our local newspaper's terrible insensitivity. I'll keep you posted when I see the programme, called 'Media Watch', Channel 1 nationally at 9.20pm.

  20. Further to my comment to Rhubarbwhine:
    Media Watch went to the screen last night and really roasted the Tweed Daily News for its articles and pictures.

    The presenter Jonathon Holmes called it 'a little rag'. The programme carried comments from the young man's father who also castigated the newspaper and confirmed that his son suffered a serious mental illness.

    He said the young man had hoped the news team would help him, and was upset when they didn't.

    Subsequently, the father said, his son saw the articles and went missing for four days. He was subsequently admitted to the local psychiatric unit for treatment.

  21. Hi June,

    Thank you for this post packed with information and insight. Mental health advocacy is an issue near and dear to my heart. There is so much more we could be doing here in the states for those dealing with the storms of the mind. The most basic are making care more accessible, and reducing stigma. Our politically-correct tendencies have come a long way on the stigma aspect, but we've got miles to go yet in making care more affordable and accessible.

    The Web sites you listed are great sources of information (and hope). Much appreciation!


  22. Hi ANANJI
    Thanks for being so caring.

    'Storms of the mind' is such a good description, I believe.

    It's so difficult for those who don't suffer such storms to truly empathise with those who do.

    We really must think and act more in the interests of those who have mental illness, and their families.

  23. It is indeed a very sad state of affairs that people experiencing symptoms of mental illness become fodder for journos. These people are ill and need understanding. We do not make fun of people with an illness like cancer but for some reason the people with mental illnesses are made fun of . I contribute to stigma watch as often as I can.

  24. The media, by its nature, will always be prone to this sort of thing.

    Succesful media tends to shout. Subtlety and sensitivity get lost in the hullabaloo so people will get trampled on.

    That's why it needs to be policed and for people to shout it down when it gets things wrong.

    Good post.

  25. 'Successful' in terms of the bottom line A Write Blog. But not if enough people help police this type of behaviour? Then circulation/ratings will go down?

    I think our local newspaper The Tweed Daily News may think more carefully before disrespecting those suffering mental health problems in future. And that will be a direct result of an active community making its feelings felt.

    And so we agree!

  26. June,
    Hello! I've meandered over from the Writer's Porch and I must say I enjoy the freshness of your blog and your sense of humor. Got to go now and read some more.

  27. Welcome ANGIE

    I'd say there is enough stuff here to keep you busy for the rest of the day!

  28. In the 80s I resisted an offer to work for a new tabloid in the UK. I couldn't produce the kind of insensitive so-called journalism they needed in order to stay competitive in the circulation war.

    Whatever happened to quality reporting?

  29. "It’s about time the media took seriously their responsibilities towards people with mental illness."

    Wouldn't that be all of us to one degree or another?

    Stay on groovin' safari,

  30. "It’s about time the media took seriously their responsibilities towards people with mental illness."

    Wouldn't that be all of us to one degree or another?

    Stay on groovin' safari,

  31. Quality reporting ... mmmm ... well might you ask MARTIN H.

    I just can't excuse most of the drivel that goes into 'opinion pieces' in today's newspapers. Talk about dumbing down!

  32. G'day TOR HERSHMAN
    Do you mean the media should take its responsibilities to all humanity seriously, or that the all humans, not just those in the media, should show more responsibility to people with mental illness?
    I'd agree with both really, but whatever, I'm really concerned for those people who are having too much of a battle in life to gather the influence and/or the energy to fight their cause successfully by themselves.
    Many of us are big and ugly enough to look after our own back yards, but to my mind, that's not a luxury people with serious mental illness are likely to have very often.


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