September 10, 2020 (Updated )
On March 24 2015 Andreas Lubitz crashed a Germanwings flight into the French Alps, killing everyone on board. As his history of depression emerged, tabloids ran with stories calling him a “madman” and asking “why on earth was he allowed to fly?” It was not the first or last time news outlets splattered their front pages with harmful generalisations of mental illness.
In 2003 The Sun ran the headline “Bonkers Bruno Locked Up” when former boxer Frank Bruno was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. In 2013 Hello Giggles was just one of many publications to distill Amanda Bynes’ breakdown into a listicle of her “craziest moments”, asking if “someone just inject[ed] her with crazy one night”. Fast forward to 2020 and details of TV presenter Caroline Flack’s death have triggered an urgent conversation around the harms of tabloid culture on mental health.
A few months after her death, a study by the BMJ found that media reporting of suicide is associated with increases in suicide in the general population. Specifically, it found that when suicide methods of celebrities were reported, the number of deaths in the population using the same method increased by 30 percent.
This led to The Samaritans charity releasing an updated version of their media guidelines urging journalists to refrain from describing the method used or speculating about causes. But as coverage of the August inquiry into Flack’s death defied these guidelines, it’s painfully clear that the media has a lot of work to do. What does it mean to report responsibly on mental health? And how do you put this into practice, whether you’re answering to an editor or pitching stories?
‘Every Journalist Needs To Be Aware Of The Guidelines’
“Firstly, every journalist needs to be aware of the media guidelines and follow them,” says Yvette Caster, a freelance journalist and host of Metro’s Mentally Yours podcast. Alongside The Samaritans, The Press Complaints Commission and charities such as Time to Change, the Mental Health Foundation and BEAT offer comprehensive guidelines.
“Secondly, it’s important to include information at the end of the article on how people can get support,” Yvette adds, explaining that on Mentally Yours, Yvette and co-host Ellen Scott read out the number for Samaritans at the end of every episode. “Be specific. if you are writing about eating disorders, it’s ideal to include information on and contacts details for BEAT.”
Signposting support is as crucial as familiarising yourself with responsible reporting guidelines. It moves your reportage from detached to empathetic, a quality that’s essential to successful mental health reporting, Yvette tells me.
When pursuing empathetic reporting, journalists have a responsibility to decide whether the people they are interviewing are well enough, Yvette argues, referencing ABC’s 2011 interview with Charlie Sheen, where he was relentlessly probed about his mental state, leading to him say he is ‘Not Bipolar but ‘Bi-Winning’.
“Whether somebody is famous or not, you have a duty of care to think about whether a person is healthy enough to be interviewed by the media.”
Yvette adds: “Whether somebody is famous or not, you have a duty of care to think about whether a person is healthy enough to be interviewed by the media.” As an experienced interviewer, Yvette understands how tricky it is to find a balance between compassion and professionalism. As a rule of thumb, she suggests being “aware if someone is saying worrying things or acting strangely” without leaning into patronising behaviour, such as assuming that someone living with a longterm health condition cannot make informed decisions.
‘Create A Sense Of Comfort And Follow Their Boundaries’
Once you’ve determined that your source is in a position to be interviewed, how do you do it sensitively – and well? For Yvette, it’s simple. Be kind, listen, and let people tell their own story. “It’s a real privilege that people are sharing big stories with you so you have to go into it with an open mind,” she explains. “An interview is just a conversation between people, so create a sense of comfort and follow their boundaries.”
Guidelines For Journalists Covering Mental Health Issues
Including the interviewee in the editorial process is something freelancer and editor of Lacuna Voices, Punteha Van Terheyden, fiercely advocates for. Punteha launched Lacuna Voices after 12 years writing true life stories for the nationals. She wanted to create a space for personal stories where the stories are told authentically, without relying on sensationalism.
To ensure this happens, Punteha provides a full brief to any journalist she works with, detailing exactly what she does or does not want. It’s then the journalist’s job to check that the case study (or if it’s a first-person story, themselves) is comfortable with the editorial direction of the feature. If they aren’t, they’ll work around it or drop the story. The key, Punteha explains, is that once that piece is published, they look at it and feel proud about how their story has been told.
Lacuna Voices is also enacting a process that isn’t common in journalism; providing a full read back to anyone who shares their story. “Everything, including the picture and headline, is seen by the journalist and interviewee before it goes to print,” Punteha tells me. The purpose is to build trust and provide full transparency from conception to publication.
If you’re an entry-level journalist working in a newsroom though, it might simply not be practical to spend time going through drafts with sources, and there are strong arguments as to why read backs aren’t always a good idea. But, within mental health reporting, it’s worth thinking about how you make sure you’re as honest as possible with sources about how they’ll be portrayed.
“You have to decide what kind of journalist you want to be. You have a right to advocate for your interviewees and to refuse to talk about areas of mental health that makes you uncomfortable.”
Punteha Van Terheyden
Sometimes, especially as a entry-level reporter, you may even be asked to write a piece about mental health that doesn’t align with your values. Punteha has been there herself when nationals pushed her to doorstep grieving families. When she was turned away, the newsdesk would tell her to try a second time. She’d either refuse to go back, or quietly drew her own boundaries. She doesn’t feel bad about this, because she says those families deserved her empathy.
For junior journalists, it’s not always possible to refuse to do a job you are asked to do by a more senior member of staff. Punteha understands the pressure to follow what your editor tells you to do, but believes in setting your ethical boundaries. “You have to decide what kind of journalist you want to be,” she argues. “You have a right to advocate for your interviewees and to refuse to talk about areas of mental health that makes you uncomfortable.”
It’s Vital To Seek Out A Range Of Stories
If you’re under pressure and unsure of where to draw your ethical boundary, Marverine Cole suggests picking your battles. “Suggest your ideas. If you’re not getting anywhere, you have to decide if you want to stay. But you can also write your own stories on your blog and be emailing your portfolio to companies you do want to work for,” she advises.
Marverine won Journalist of the Year at the 2019 Mind Media Awards for her BBC Radio 4 Documentary, Black Girls Don’t Cry. She’s worked in TV and Radio for over 30 years as a reporter, producer and news presenter. With this wealth of experience behind her, Marverine tells me that mental health journalism isn’t any different to other areas of journalism, in that it boils down to finding original stories with interesting, diverse contributors.
When reporting on disability it is vital to seek out a range of voices. “It often feels to me that there is only one voice when it comes to mental health. One which is young, middle class, and white,” Marverine says.
“Therefore, when researching a story, I would suggest you try and go beyond just relying on case studies from a charity press office. Instead go and search in social media group, contact grassroots community organisations. Talk to people. This way, you might find a range of contributors for your story. You end up offering the reader an appreciation of the intersectionality of experiences.”
“It often feels to me that there is only one voice when it comes to mental health. One which is young, middle class, and white.”
Providing your audience with an understanding of different experiences of mental health is not an exercise in diversity box-ticking. It is a public health necessity. Culturally aware mental health treatments are severely lacking in the NHS and form part of the problem when it comes to the stark inequalities in the system, which is something that Marverine explores in her documentary.
Black people are 40 percent more likely to access treatment through the police or criminal justice system and are four times as likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act. And while half of LGBTQ+ people experienced depression in the last year, one in seven avoid seeking healthcare for fear of discrimination.
The statistics show that our mental health system is deeply flawed. Knowing this, Marverine feels more mental health journalism needs to be solutions-focused. “It’s great to have voices talking about their experiences but without an understanding of underlying causes nothing is going to improve,” she argues. “Do the job that journalists are meant to do; hold power to account and get to the root of the problem. Quiz councillors, policy makers and health organisations about their policy. Ask them ‘What now?’. Our audience expects it.”
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in this story, you can reach help from a number of places. The Samaritans are available 24/7 on 116 123 and you can also contact them through their website. You can see a list of other organisations here.