Why responsible mental health communication is a key media issue

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It’s easy to think that, if we don’t work in mental health (or with mental health clients), that mental health media portrayals are beyond our remit. However, there are two key reasons why a basic understanding of responsible mental health reporting is paramount.

Firstly, a quarter of us are likely to experience a mental health problem – meaning that you or your loved ones are likely to engage in the conversation at some point in time.

Secondly, mental health problems are often used as descriptors in non-mental health stories and conversations. So it’s possible to use mental health stigma even if we’re not setting out to write on the topic.

To give this some context…

Have you ever heard anyone say, ‘God, she’s so tachycardic’ as a way to describe somebody’s personality?

Probably not.

Yet with mental health, it’s sadly still a part of today’s society to sometimes describe people as a mental health problem.

‘She’s so OCD, she’s like Monica from Friends’. 

‘I’m so depressed, I missed Love Island.’

So it’s worth being aware of mental health media best practice – even if you’re not working in the sector.

In 2017. activist and writer, Natasha Devon, launched the Mental Health Media Charter – a set of commitments that anyone working in media or PR can sign up to and ensure that mental health portrayals are responsibly communicated.

Given the fact that poor mental health descriptors and some of the outdated mental health phrases are still very much alive and in use, it’s easy to use them without thinking about them.

For example, describing somebody who has taken their own life as having ‘committed suicide’ harks back to the days when taking your own life was a criminal offence. The law changed many decades ago, but the terminology stuck. It is better in this instance to say ‘died by suicide’.

Similarly, mis-representing a TV character as being ‘psychotic’ rather than ‘psychopathic’ (as was the case in the media re Jodie Comer’s character, Villanelle in Killing Eve) can be really upsetting to people who do live with psychosis – which is a collection of symptoms that make people far more vulnerable, not far more violent, than the wider community. Linking the term ‘psychosis’ to a psychopathic serial killer like Villanelle can cause people to feel ashamed and stigmatised, and can influence discrimination and isolation by others.

As an agency, NGI Solutions is working with Newcastle United Foundation on its #BEAGAMECHANGER campaign – a project that raises awareness of mental health problems and encourages Newcastle United fans to speak more openly about mental health generally.

It’s obviously important that we represent the campaign and our case study volunteers fairly and responsibly. However, we have signed up to the Mental Health Media Charter to ensure that we practice these communications principles in all areas of our work.

Signing up to the charter doesn’t mean you’ll be policed and hung out to dry if you make a mistake. What it does mean is that you will have access to simple guidance to inform your communications, and that you are committed to doing your best to portray mental health accurately and in a non-stigmatising way.

So, I’d urge anyone working in or with the media to check out the guidance. At the very least, it will help you with a conversation you are bound to have at some point with a friend, colleague or family member who is struggling with a mental health problem.

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