Balance in Mental Health Reporting

One of the things that’s most frustrating for me as someone who reports on mental health issues and works with these subjects on a daily basis is the fact that readers only really engage when there’s a media event to peg the story to. Standalone stories about mental health issues don’t get coverage, whether they involve higher assault rates for mentally ill people, abuse of institutionalised patients, developments in mental health treatment, and other matters. As soon as there’s a mass shooting, or a high-profile suicide, or someone doing something outlandish in public with a history of mental illness, suddenly every outlet wants stories, and everyone wants to talk about mental health.

The University of Washington’s School of Social Work has a section on their site specifically addressing mental health reporting and ways to improve the handling of mental health in the media, and one of the issues they bring up is the need for balanced coverage featuring a variety of subjects related to mental health. They note that:

Atypical instances of violence also create opportunities to write in-depth stories on topics such as: the side effects of anti-psychotic medications, racial/ ethnic disparities in access to mental health services, the varied methods of treatment available to people living with mental illnesses, on why the mental health systems sometimes break down, and factors such as the impact of stigma and discrimination that deter individuals from seeking treatment.

What makes me want to scream is that these subjects are critically important all the time, and no one wants to hear about them if there hasn’t been some major public tragedy. And these events, almost always, are immediately blamed on a ‘crazy person’ even when no information is readily available. Speculation quickly starts to fly about the culprit, and along the way, very damaging messages about mental illness are sent out and absorbed, even though this is a very big and complex picture. A detailed Mother Jones report last year on mass shootings in the US had to grudgingly admit, for example, that only about half of mass shootings involve a mentally ill person.

And while these events are awful and should never happen, they are also extreme outliers. Only engaging with mental health in the wake of such events is actually part of the problem; because many of the people involved in such situations struggled to access care and treatment, and should have received appropriate clinical interventions long before. Yet, they lacked the social and institutional support they needed to get that help, and consequently, something truly terrible occurred. If we talked about these issues all the time rather than only in crisis, perhaps we’d see actual progress in terms of mental health care.

The media, and society in general, never examine their own complicity here; instead there’s some token handwringing in the wake of tragedy usually accompanied by claims that mentally ill people should be locked up or subjected to forcible treatment, and then the subject fades from the public eye and everyone is right back where they started. No meaningful change has occurred, there’s no traction on mental health issues, and mentally ill people are still left without the services and support they need to succeed if they want to pursue treatment and other assistance.

It creates an endless, vicious cycle, in which mental illness becomes entangled with violence in the eyes of most readers, who also come to believe that there is nothing to be done to address mental health conditions beyond locking crazy people away where they can’t interact with ‘normal’ society. There’s no interest in the balanced coverage that is so critically necessary, in which mental health issues are examined within a larger social context and people are invited to engage with stories about all aspects of mental health, not just dramatic outliers which are, at their base, sad stories about people who needed help and never got it, yet will be vilified in the media for their illnesses.

People often express extreme anger when I engage with breaking mental health news and use it as an opportunity to talk about broader mental health issues, like stigma, like the fact that mentally ill people are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, like cuts to mental health services, like abuse of mentally ill people in the medical system and within institutions. They think I’m not showing respect to the dead, or I’m hijacking tragedies to advance my own agenda; they tell me I should sit quietly and not make this terrible news all about me.

I’m forced, though, to take these opportunities to talk about mental health because the rest of the time, no one listens. It’s a constant struggle to get people to pay attention to any of these things when something terrible hasn’t just happened, when no one mentally ill has done something remarkably horrific in the last week. No one wants to hear about it when mentally ill people do and accomplish great things, and no one wants to hear about the struggles and challenges society creates for the mentally community. Having a mental health condition is only a subject of interest when you’re a naked man on a statue, an armed figure opening fire on an innocent crowd, someone jumping off a bridge at rush hour.

This is my way of showing respect, because fighting for a better world includes educating people and combating common social stereotypes. Until people can handle mental health news any time, rather than just in the wake of a tragedy, I’m going to have to keep cramming it down their throats along with their dose of prurient media speculation and demonising. Maybe someday such events will be rare to nonexistent because we’ll live in a society without prejudice, discrimination, and hatred for mentally ill people, and maybe that day, people will give a fig about mental health matters every day of the year, not just when it suits them.