Journalism and writing mental health: Why is it important?

We may no longer lock people away in asylums, or give freezing baths to hysterical patients, but America still has a long way to go in its approach to mental health. Stigma is still heavily attached to the mentally ill. In television individuals with mental illness are portrayed as violent or homicidal. Some mentally ill people are portrayed as weak or cowardly, as if being unable to cope with an illness is a personal failing or a character flaw. Worst of all, mental illness is belittled and played for laughs in television.

Unfortunately, Journalism can sometimes fall into this trap as well. Many journalists are sadly misinformed and undereducated. And why wouldn’t they be? Most of the general public has believes similarly. Even physicians and general practitioners are often woefully ignorant of the symptoms of mental illness, since it is given such a low priority in the curriculum.

Journalism has had, and can continue to change the world of mental health. In 1887 a young journalist named Nellie Bly agreed to go undercover at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. She witnessed brutal conditions there. Her expose on Blackwell asylum caused a reexamination of who was being sent in, as well as raising funds for decent living conditions and edible food for the patients.

Many people live with mental illness every day, and are told by friends, family or co-workers that their struggle is invalid. It can be disheartening to live in a society that believes the mentally ill are violent or untrustworthy. Media so often does not stop to question itself before putting out falsehoods about those who are already struggling with external and internalized shame.

Journalism can help correct this injustice, by first debunking many of its most prolific stereotypes. Journalists must also practice a code of ethics when dealing with the mentally ill. Particular care must be taken in the case of suicides. There is nothing worse for a family to hear than that a loved one is dead, and it is not our right to reveal that before they have been contacted. Journalists not reveal an alleged suicide before it can be confirmed, hearsay is not our business either.

Ethics should also be observed in the writing of suicide obituaries. Blame should not be shifted to the deceased, nor to the parents. Too often I see people blame the person who has died. This is an inappropriate attitude to have. The person who committed suicide was suffering, not in their right mind, and was seeking help or relief. Neither is it the parents fault, for being unable to spot depression. Often the days leading up to a suicide are marked by increased positivity and happiness.

What I’d like Journalists to take away from this is that we need greater knowledge of mental illness in the newsroom. We need a code of ethics to outline our dealings with the survivors of suicide. Most of all, we need coverage on the lesser known or misunderstood mental illness, to show the public that people who suffer with mental health are not crazy and most often are not violent. They are their neighbors, their co-workers, and friends, and they need support.