Mental health guidelines underpin responsible reporting

It’s been five years since the release of the Mindset: Reporting on Mental Health media guide. Written by and for journalists — with the expertise of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma — and funded by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), Mindset has become an indispensable resource for reporters wishing to contribute to meaningful mental health dialogue across the country.

“There was a real hunger for this work in the journalism community,” explains Rob Whitley, assistant professor at the McGill University department of psychiatry and principal investigator for the Douglas Hospital Research Centre’s social psychiatry research and interest group, who has been reporting on mental illness since 2010. “We looked at the media coverage prior to Mindset and the creation of the MHCC, then compared it with more recent reporting. What we are seeing today,” he says, “is a high level of fidelity to the guide’s recommendations,” an improvement he attributes to a “collective awakening” about mental health, which is supported by the way Mindset dispenses with dense language in favour of clear instructions.

To establish how closely Canadian reporters are mirroring the guide’s recommendations, Whitley and his team recently looked at how Canadian newspapers handled the suicide of Hannah Baker, lead character in the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. “Yes, she was a fictional character,” he notes, “but you could argue her suicide captured the attention of the nation and, at the time, garnered the highest profile in the country.” Whitley goes on to explain that, given the show’s young audience, it was important to systematically examine how sensitive and responsible the coverage was.

“This show sparked a really robust debate around the country. I won’t say I was surprised, but I was certainly pleased to see a depth of coverage we wouldn’t have seen ten years ago.” He thinks responsible reporting is both a function of what reporters include and what they omit. Best practices tell us that phrases like “commit suicide” stigmatize and that highlighting suicide methods can become dangerous (through the power of suggestion, for example). In the case of 13 Reasons Why, journalists largely respected such “don’ts”; with respect to the “dos,” Whitley and his team found that articles now frequently include input from mental health experts and links to helplines or crisis centres.

While this news is heartening, he concedes that there is still much to be done. For example, Whitley recently examined 1,168 news articles for how mental health reporting differs when it includes a woman living with mental illness rather than a man. After examining these articles according to the team’s “chivalry hypothesis,” it found that the women are frequently portrayed with more compassion, and that their situations are given more context. On the other side, men are painted with a more punitive brush.

Echoing the importance of responsible language in the media, Mike Pietrus, director of the MHCC’s Opening Minds anti-stigma initative, noted that “journalists help us to understand our world. We entrust them with a huge responsibility and, in return, we owe them tools to help them do that as accurately and fairly as possible, based on the best evidence we have. It’s in the best interest for all of us.”

Whitley agrees — adding that with changing times come changing needs. To reflect these changes, Mindset was updated last year with specific recommendations for reporting on Indigenous people experiencing a mental health problem or illness. The layers at play include cultural sensitivity, entrenched racism and intergenerational trauma, and the history of residential schools. “We see a huge opportunity in examining how specific Indigenous populations living with mental health problems are covered in the media so we can better understand where they contribute to stigma and stereotypes – or where they do not.” The team’s future analyses may extend beyond Indigenous peoples to include other minority populations.

“Members of the Canadian media have significantly improved their coverage of mental health issues and suicide,” he said. “However, there is still room for improvement and innovation, which we hope to see in the coming years.”