How can we share stories of mental health, better?
The Mental Health Media Charter
We need more people, schools and organisations to sign up to this Mental Health Media Charter, signalling that you are committed to reporting stories relating to mental health responsibly, taking into account the needs of the most vulnerable members of the population. You are acknowledging the power of language and imagery in shaping social attitudes and declaring your intention to genuinely educate and to reduces stigma around mental illness.
It is hoped that those who sign up to this charter are confirming they will do their best not to:
1. Use the phrase ‘commit suicide’ or ‘successful suicide’.
The term ‘commit’ suggests criminality and blame. We now understand that suicide happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain. It is not a criminal act in the UK and has not been since 1961. ‘Successful suicide’ contravenes what we now understand about the act – Most people who take their own life are ambivalent, in that part of them wants to live.
Better alternatives: ‘Attempted/completed suicide’, ‘took/ended their own life’, or even ‘killed themselves’.
2. Show ‘before’ images in eating disorder stories or pictures which could be triggering to people who self-harm.
For people who are in a healthy mindset, seeing ‘before’ pictures of people in the grips of anorexia or who have self-harmed can act as a deterrent. However, for people who are either experiencing, or in recovery from eating disorders or self-harm we now understand that these pictures can become something to ‘aspire to’.
3. Use the term ‘anorexics’, ‘bulimics’, ‘depressives’ or ‘schizophrenics’…
It is important to understand that a person is distinct from their illness. To label someone an ‘anorexic’ for example, suggests that they are defined by their eating disorder. This is not only unhelpful in terms of the way they are perceived by others but it might also hinder their recovery process.
Better alternatives: ‘people experiencing anorexia/bulimia/depression/psychosis.
Less is more
4. Avoid giving too much detail on suicide/self-harm or eating disorder methodology.
We now understand that giving a lot of detail about how people have harmed themselves can inspire imitational behaviour – There is a delicate balance to be struck with your responsibility to report the facts of the case. Try to avoid going into too much detail, which will ensure the report is safe for all audiences.
As a general rule, stories should focus on ‘whys’ not ‘hows’.
5. Avoid using generic terms like ‘mental health issues’ when describing terrorists and other violent criminals.
99% of people with mental illnesses are more likely to harm themselves than others. In establishing a link between generic poor mental health and terrorism/violent crime, stigma and fear is increased. Instead be specific – what mental health ‘issue’ did the perpetrator they have? Was it in fact a personality disorder (being a psychopath or a sociopath is not technically a ‘mental illness’)?
Add a disclaimer along the lines of ‘note most people with mental health ‘issues’/personality disorders would not commit a crime of this nature, which occur as a result of a rare combination of circumstances’.
Know the difference
6. Understand the difference between mental health and mental ill health.
Everyone with a brain has a mental health, just as everyone with a body has a physical health. By using the term ‘mental health’ to describe mental illness, an important discussion which impacts 100% of the population is effectively confined to one quarter of it. Instead of ‘battles with mental health’ it is therefore much more helpful to say ‘issues with mental ill health’ so that the public can understand the distinction.
7. Include links to good quality sources of support if content might trigger need for help in a reader.
The best charities and support organisations ensure their web forums are monitored for triggering content (ie users sharing self-harm or suicide techniques). They do not promote one form of therapy for financial gain but instead describe various treatment methods. They base their content on reliable evidence and have good links with research institutions.
- Young Minds (www.youngminds.org.uk),
- The Samaritans (www.samaritans.org),
- CALM (www.thecalmzone.net),
- The Mix (www.themix.org.uk),
- The Self-Harm Network (www.nshn.co.uk),
- B-eat (www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk),
- Mind (www.mind.org.uk).
For people, schools and organisations who are endorsing the Mental Health Media Charter, you are signalling that you are committed to reporting stories relating to mental health responsibly, helpfully and in a way that takes into account the needs of the most vulnerable members of the population. You are acknowledging the power of language and imagery in shaping social attitudes and declaring your intention to genuinely educate and to reduces stigma around mental illness.
Compiled by Natasha Devon MBE in association with: Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, Beat and The Samaritans.