Getting it right on mental health begins with facts and language

March 29, 2015 By Emily Necciai Conferences

Arthur Miller once said, “a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself.” With the nation talking about the Germanwings airplane crash in Europe, the “Getting It Right on Mental Health and Suicide” session presented Friday at ACES 19th national conference couldn’t have been more appropriate.

Melissa McCoy, an independent media consultant, began her session with those words from Miller, kind smiles and a few words of comfort. There was a lot to discuss and not enough time for everything, but getting the conversation started was what mattered.

McCoy outlined the current conversations about mental health: when we talk about mental health and the language associated with it. In the end, McCoy said, we don’t talk about mental health enough: We usually only see it in the media following tragedies or crises.

The media language associated with mental health issues has often been negative, McCoy said. But our goals in reporting and editing should be the same as with any other topic: We should be informative, fair and accurate.

Getting it right on mental health begins with knowing facts. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health Issues, one in four people in any given year will have a mental health issue, be it transitionary and temporary, or permanent.

Melissa McCoy talks to an attendee about the cultural issues arisen by mental health issues. The attendee suggested the book “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman as a literary exploration of this top

McCoy explained a project she was a part of in California. She and a group from TEAM Up partners worked to quantify the language of mental health by looking at more than 20 California newspapers. They found that most of the papers used negative language to depict the topic and emphasized the person as dangerous.

That language, as well as history, has plenty to do with the cultural discrimination against people who have mental health issues, McCoy said. Discrimination and stigmas are far-reaching and can often prevent those with mental health issues from seeking help, she said.

What can the media do to reduce discrimination and stigmas? It can follow Dan Morse’s lead in a recent article from the Washington Post, McCoy said. Morse covered the story of Catherine Hoggle and her still-missing children. His story concentrated on the missing children. He did not mention until later in the article, and only briefly, that Hoggle had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Morse referred to her as a person, not a “sufferer,” McCoy said.

Word choice is crucial. The phrase “committed suicide” has more negative connotations than you can imagine. Most likely derived from religious and insurance claim terminology, the phrase implies that a crime has been committed, McCoy said. Other words — even if said by a source — that should never be used are “crazy,” “off his meds,” “nut job” and “whack job.”

McCoy suggests using precision in writing (if a person is not suffering, don’t write “suffering from”), keeping the information at a “need-to-know” level and having a reporting policy when your publication talks about suicide and mental health.

Other recommendations from the session: Do not sensationalize or promote suicide as a contagion. Report on it as a public health issue. Provide hotline information (think of it as your public service roll). Read the new Associated Press guidelines on mental health reporting. Balance your coverage, avoid sensational headlines and, above all, ask yourself “Am I talking to my audience?”


Sources: Make sure you are getting the correct information from the right people. Talk to the person with the mental illness and let their voice be heard.

Leads: Make sure your story follows the lead. Concentrate on what the story is really about.

Labeling: Do not label. Remember, the person is not the disease (i.e. “Jane, a mother of two…” not “Jane, a schizophrenic”).

HIPAA: Check HIPAA coverage. Who can you go to for information? Who should you keep information from?

Slang: Be careful about the words you use and when you use mental health terms in irrelevant situations. Never misuse or abuse words like, “schizophrenic” when talking about a sports team who couldn’t “decide if they wanted to play well or not.” Never refer to a thing as bipolar, and never say things like, “he’s so OCD.” It is lazy and not helpful to the reader.

Resources on mental health issues:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

National Institutes of Mental Health

Suicidal thoughts or actions? Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (available 24 hours a day and seven days a week) at 800-273-8255

 Emily Necciai is a student at Carnegie Mellon University.

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