Dr Andrew Mayers
PhD, MBPsS, FRSA
Mental Health Media Charter
On October 10th 2017 (World Mental Health Day), Natasha Devon launched the Mental Health Media Charter. It was my pleasure to be part of that launch. For me, this charter is not before time. All too often, we see irresponsible, insensitive, inappropriate, inaccurate, and careless reporting of mental health. Some media outlets are better than others; some are very much worse (I won't name them for fear of litigation). The new Mental Health Media Charter invites the media to sign up to guidelines that consider some of the important factors in reporting mental health responsibly, sensitively, and safely. The key points of that charter are presented here.
The Mental Health Media Charter was compiled by Natasha Devon MBE, in association with Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, Beat Eating Disorders and the Samaritans. It was endorsed by Girlguiding and the Men and Boys Coalition.
Mission Statement (to media organisations)
In 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.
If work in a high-pressure, high turnover press office, it is understood that occasionally headlines or pictures will ‘slip through the net’. However, by signing up to the charter you are confirming you will do your 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 alternative: ‘people experiencing anorexia/bulimia/depression/psychosis’.
4. Give 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. Use 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’)?
You might also 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’.
You agree to show that you will do your best to:
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.
MEDIA OUTLETS AND INDIVIDUALS WHO HAVE SIGNED UP TO THIS CHARTER WILL RECEIVE THEIR
‘STAMP OF APPROVAL’ (SEE ABOVE) TO DISPLAY ON THEIR SOCIAL MEDIA/WEBSITE