The Mississippi Department of Mental Health (DMH) and the Think Again Network have completed work on a project that aims to change the portrayal of mental illness across the state.
DMH and Think Again have released a Mental Health Media Guidebook for Mississippi Journalists that provides tips and helpful information regarding coverage of the often sensitive topics of mental illness and suicide. The Think Again Network is a group of mental health professionals and advocates who seek to educate the public across the state about the misconceptions of mental illness. With that goal in mind, the media guide acts as a tool and resource to help journalists in their work of providing fair and comprehensive news coverage.
The guide builds on the Associated Press Stylebook entry on mental illness. The AP Stylebook is a writing guide for journalists that is published and updated each year, but the entry on mental illness was only added in 2013. However, research has shown that many people do not have much information on behavioral health issues other than what they have perceived from the mass media.
The goal with this guide is to aid journalists, especially journalism students, in providing appropriate news coverage that can help break down the stigma surrounding mental health. The guide also provided an opportunity for several Mississippians to share their own stories of how they have been affected by mental illness.
One such story is from Mississippi journalist and University of Mississippi journalism professor Robin Street. She shares her account of overcoming and recovering from a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“As a journalist, I have written often about mental health issues, trying to help people understand them,” she said in her story. “As a college journalism instructor, I implore journalists and journalism students to take time to understand and report on mental health issues.”
The guidebook presents some general information that would be informative to the general public, such as the fact that mental illnesses are common, and one in five adults has a diagnosable mental illness. It drives home that recovery is possible and treatment works.
It also deals with some topics that are crucially important – reporting on suicide and the relationship between mental illness and violence.
More than 50 studies worldwide have found that news coverage can increase the likelihood of an already-vulnerable person attempting suicide. That increase has been tied to the amount, duration, and prominence of the media coverage. The information presented in the guidebook focuses on ways to avoid misinformation about suicide and avoid sensationalizing it. In short, suicide is a very complex topic, but it is possible to report on it while still informing an audience and also including information that can offer hope and resources to individuals who may be affected by it.
While violent acts committed by individuals living with mental illnesses are not uncommon in the news cycle, research has shown violence and mental illness should not necessarily be linked together. The U.S. Surgeon General has reported that the likelihood of violence from people with mental illness is “exceptionally small.” A study published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry says that the vast majority of mentally ill people are actually more likely to be victims of violence than others.
Other topics in the guide include ways to eliminate stigmatizing language from news coverage, tips for interviewing people who have been personally affected by mental illnesses and ways the media can help change the public perception of mental illness.
“It’s important for journalism students to learn more about reporting on mental health and suicide because they are the professional opinion leaders of society,” says Belhaven University communication major Toni Robinson in the guide.
“Journalists have the power to influence stereotypes about people whether they are positive or negative. That power should be handled responsibly when it comes to issues such as mental health and suicide."