Mass media is society's biggest source of information on mental health. We consider how mental illness is portrayed by the media.
Public attitudes to mental health are influenced by the media. While we may consider ourselves to be enlightened individuals capable of forming our own opinions, the things we read and watch – on TV, in newspapers and magazines, and on the internet – play a significant role in the way we think about the world around us.
Sadly, when it comes to discussing mental health, the media has sometimes fallen short of prompting reasoned, informed discussion, instead preferring to shock and sensationalise. We take a look at how the media treats mental illness, and the impact this has on society.
Headlines: What are they saying?
The headline is undoubtedly the most impactful part of any article. No matter how well-balanced the rest of the story or feature, if the headline gives a negative impression then the damage has already been done.
Fortunately – or should that be hopefully? – the days of the Sun responding to the news of former heavyweight boxer Frank Bruno being taken to a psychiatric hospital with the headline "Bonkers Bruno Locked Up" appear to be well behind us.
But that's not to say there aren't plenty more recent and troubling examples of headlines that stigmatise people with mental health problems. Indeed, a study from Alistair Cooke Fulbright scholar Mary O'Hara and a team at the University of California, Berkeley concluded that over time, UK tabloid headlines and articles have in fact become more negative in their reporting on mental illness.
In 2013, the Sun was roundly criticised for a front page headline that read "1,200 killed by mental patients". While the article noted that many "high-risk patients" who committed murder had been failed by the system and also featured comment from mental health charity Mind, this was outweighed by the misleading and sensationalist header.
In the case of this year's Germanwings air disaster, the media soon began focusing on co-pilot Andreas Lubitz's history of mental illness. The Daily Mail, for instance, went with: "Mass-killer co-pilot who deliberately crashed Germanwings plane had to STOP training because he was suffering depression and 'burnout'."
The reaction prompted some calls for airline authorities to issue lifetime bans for commercial pilots with a history of depression. Yet, as Royal College of Psychiatrists president Professor Simon Wessely pointed out: "An utterly bizarre and unpredictable event is not a good basis of policy."
Prof Wessely told the Observer: "What does cause trouble is saying that if you have ever had a history of depression then you should not be allowed to do whatever. That is wrong, as much as saying that people with a history of broken arms shouldn't be allowed to do something."
Media influences our day-to-day language and perceptions
Considerable research has concluded that mass media is the public's most significant source of information on mental illness. As such, negative portrayals of mental health problems have a major impact, clouding our judgment and provoking discrimination – whether deliberate or unintentional – towards people with mental illness.
Landmark research from the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence, published back in 1997, noted that broadsheets and tabloids made a clear link between mental illness, criminality and violence. In reality, people with mental health problems are actually up to ten times more likely to become the targets of crime than the average person, according to a study from charities and academics including Victim Support and University College London.
While spittle-flecked headlines about "psycho killers" and the like play an obvious part in scapegoating people with mental health problems, the wider tone of an article and the language within can have a more subtle, almost insidious, impact.
When used in informal conversation, words like 'mental', 'crazy" and 'manic' can seem innocent. But they can also cause offence. The use of these words – and many more besides, from 'psycho' and 'loony' to 'nutter' and 'schizophrenic' – by the media only goes to further encourage and normalise their use in everyday speech.
This needn't always be seen as a negative, however. Discussing mental health is important, and it's vital that this discussion is not stifled by being overly critical of the way certain words are used.
What's more, many of the words related to mental illness now have a separate, positive meaning. 'Mental', 'mad' and 'crazy' are now just as likely to describe a particularly eventful night out as they are to speculate on a person's mental health.
How use of imagery in media impacts our view of mental health
Of course, it's not just the words on a page that have the ability to influence how we think; imagery can be even more impactful.
The Statistic Brain Research Institute says our average attention span is now just 8.25 seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000. With such little time to communicate messages to consumers, a striking image can be far more effective than a few hundred words of text.
So what does this have to do with mental health? The issue is that media organisations too often opt for stereotypical imagery when depicting mental illness, which means the classic – and unhelpful – 'headclutcher' picture is wheeled out time and again.
Time to Change, a programme to challenge mental health stigma and discrimination backed by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, points out that people with mental health problems don't look depressed the whole time.
In a survey of almost 2,000 people who support the charities' views, eight in ten respondents said the 'headclutcher' image doesn't represent what it feels like to have a mental illness. Even more concerning, a third of those surveyed said images of suicide could prompt suicidal feelings.
Get The Picture
Why is the range of imagery used by the media to accompany mental health-related stories so limited? Is it simply due to lack of availability, or is it more about a lack of understanding? Whatever the reason, Time to Change is helping to address it through the launch of Get the Picture, a campaign that offers a range of free imagery to use alongside news stories and features about mental illness. All of the visuals in this article are taken from the Get the Picture image bank.
Get the Picture is being supported by the UK Picture Editors' Guild, whose chairman Alan Sparrow declared: "Our members can have a powerful effect on the portrayal of mental health problems via images in the media. We hope to dissuade our industry from using the 'headclutcher' image."
Good Mental Health
Medacs Healthcare are currently running a 'Good Mental Health' campaign aimed at raising awareness of Mental Health in the UK and stimulating the conversation. To find out more check out our page www.medacs.com/goodmentalhealth
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