Reporting Mental Illness the SANE way

By Maddie Smith
A line of people in different colours

This article is part of our focus on Cultural Shift and Human Rights. For more on this theme, click here.

By Madolyn Smith

No media outlet would ever run a story featuring the N word as an adjective. Yet, as SANE Australia’s StigmaWatch reveals, the same cannot be said for disparaging descriptions of mental illness.

StigmaWatch is an initiative developed by SANE Australia that monitors the media’s depictions of mental illness. It provides feedback to newsrooms based on the accuracy and sensitivity of portrayals. In 2013, there were 121 reports of coverage that trivialise mental illness. Given that about 45% of Australians aged between 16 and 85 will experience a mental illness at some point in their lives, it is likely that this language could one day refer to you or your loved ones.

And, in spite of what the sticks and stones adage suggests, language is powerful.

In 2006, German researchers found that teenagers who read articles linking mental illness to violence were more likely than their counterparts, who read neutral articles, to describe people living with mental illnesses as dangerous. Other studies have shown similar correlations between language use and societal perceptions of race, religion and gender.

In reality though, people affected by mental illnesses do not need to be told of the academic connections between language and social perceptions – they live through them.

The real-life impact of inaccurately describing people as “crazies”, or flippantly using “schizophrenic” to describe negative behaviours, can be seen clearly in the 2009 National People with Disabilities and Carer Council report “SHUT OUT: The Experience of People with Disabilities and their Families in Australia”.

“Always defined as ‘different’, always defined by lack – many people spoke movingly of the impact of being defined by others. When identity is always framed by others and always framed in a negative way, it is difficult to develop and maintain a strong positive sense of self and difficult to establish and maintain relationships characterised by equality and mutual support,” the report reads.

For Jessica Rowe, a news presenter and BeyondBlue Ambassador, the stigma associated with mental illness meant that she was reluctant to seek help when she experienced post-natal depression after the birth of her first child.

“Although I knew where to get help, had family support and the financial means to pay for specialists I still felt ashamed. I thought, what right do I have to be depressed? I have everything I could wish for… a beautiful baby, a wonderful husband. I felt like such a failure,” she said.

By using language that focuses on limitations we are, in effect, tactically reinforcing barriers for social participation and acceptance. It is no wonder then that 50% of Australians who take time off work for depression hide the illness out of fear that it will impact their job, and people, like Rowe, are reluctant to seek help.

But, surely, if language can create cultural perceptions, it can also be used to shift them.

Research undertaken by SANE Australia in 2007 backs up this idea, indicating that mental illness can be demystified through balanced and informative reporting. As John McGrath, founding member of the BeyondBlue puts it, “the key to reducing stigma experienced by people with mental illness is to increase everyone’s understanding of illnesses like depression, anxiety and schizophrenia”.

Already in 2013 the Associated Press has included an entry on mental illness to its style guide and the Victorian Department of Human Services has released terminology guidelines, called “Reporting It Right”. Each of these adds to a growing number of resources available to assist journalists reporting on mental illness.

However, according to Siobhan Clair, a policy officer at Disability Advocacy Network Australia (DANA), these are just the beginnings of a wider approach needed to disarm negative representation.

“Individuals will have different perspectives on how respect and inclusion should be achieved in a given situation,” Clair said.

“Decisions need to be made with intelligence and discretion, and with regard to the person being depicted. Depending on context and personal feelings a person may be offended if disability status is included where not relevant and another may feel their disability is being hidden or discounted as a valid part of their identity and indeed a valued part of their personality.”

Just as it may be unnecessary to refer to mental illness from an individual perspective, SANE Australia argues that irrelevant references in stories about criminal or negative behaviours can also lead to causation fallacies. One StigmaWatch report, for example, highlighted the negative inferences that could be made from an article that ran gruesome images featuring the word “psycho” alongside a mental health profile of several notorious criminals.

So while it may be impossible to curate a one-size-fits all guide for the media to use when it discusses mental illness, it is still important for outlets to recognise the wider societal effects that language has. Whether it’s refraining from the use of derogative terms, or taking steps to prevent undue stereotypes, the media is able to help shape the conversation and, in time, hopefully improve the lives of people living with mental illnesses.