Recommendations for Reporting on Mental Health & Mental Illness

Despite providing education online for mental illness and mental health issues for more than two decades, here at Psych Central we still see people — and sometimes even fellow journalists — reporting on mental health and mental illness in ways that perpetuate ignorance and misunderstandings. I’m sure that in many cases this is not intentional, but simply because the journalist didn’t know any better.

In celebration of mental health week (Oct 2 -8) this year, we’ve developed the following guidelines and recommendations for journalists on how to report and write more thoughtfully and respectfully about mental illness and mental health issues.

People are people, not diagnoses

While some people identify themselves by their diagnosis, a reporter or writer should refrain from using such language because it turns a complex individual into a simple label. A person is not “schizophrenic” or a “depressive.” They may be someone who suffers from schizophrenia or someone who has a diagnosis of depression, but most people are a lot more than their diagnosis. Respect people’s diversity and complexity, and refrain from characterizing them as a diagnostic label.

Respect the special reporting needs concerning suicide

Reporting on a person’s suicide requires special reporting skills. This means that suicide should not be glorified as some sort of rebellious act, nor vilified as some sort of crime. Avoid using phrases such as the person “committed suicide” (you’re not reporting on it as a crime) or describing the person’s choice as something that was rationally under their control when conceived (it likely wasn’t). Just as a news report or obituary doesn’t usually describe specific details of the cause of death when it’s a physical condition (outside of a general diagnostic label), journalists should seek to avoid providing unnecessary detail about a person’s suicide. Read the recommendations for reporting on suicide to learn more.

Don’t diagnose others unless you’re their therapist

Now more than ever, we need to be careful about throwing out armchair diagnoses for every behavior we disagree with or see as problematic. Avoid expressing thoughts such as, “Oh, she must be borderline to have acted that way.” There is no value in using a mental disorder diagnosis as short-hand for “crazy” in your narratives, stories, reporting, or conversations with others. People won’t start accepting mental illness as just another health condition until we start treating diagnoses with the same dignity and respect we apply to cancer and other medical diagnoses.

Use language around mental health terminology wisely

In the same sense, it’s not a good idea to use mental health terms loosely to describe a passing feeling or issue. Some words have double meanings, so this can be difficult. For instance, it may feel okay to wake up one morning and say you’re feeling ‘depressed,’ as that is very much the way this word has sunk into common usage in modern society. But whenever you do so, you minimize the weight and importance of the term for those who suffer from clinical depression, or more specifically, major depressive disorder. Avoid putting mental health terms into colloquial use. This isn’t about being PC, it’s about respecting the significance and impact of these very real, serious disorders.

Don’t fret about self labels

Sometimes people become very protective of the words they use to describe themselves. “I’m a person, not a patient” or “I don’t mind the word ‘client,’ but I hate being described as a patient.” I used to believe that one word was more self-empowering than another. But I now have come to realize that words that people use to use to describe themselves likely have more meaning to them than they do to me. When writing about your own journey with a mental illness, use the self labels that resonate most for you, and don’t ding others for using different words than you’ve chosen. At the end of the day, we are all simply individuals, each struggling with our own mental health issues and concerns. Words matter — but only up to a point.

Don’t oversell our knowledge

I read too many articles each year on mental illness that suggest that some researchers have it all figured out, and a “breakthrough” in our understanding or treatment of mental illness is just weeks away. Too many studies rely on pictures of the brain (through functional magnetic resonance imaging, for instance) as a way of purportedly explaining how the brain works, like modern-day phrenology. We still to this day have very little understanding of how the human brain works. And while scientific advances increase our knowledge a tiny bit every month, there are no stunning breakthroughs or advances in brain research that have panned out in the past three or more decades. That isn’t to say they aren’t coming someday. Instead, it just means that we need to be realistic when talking about research today and ensure it’s grounded in solid context.

Violence isn’t associated with mental illness

Scientific research has shown time and time again that violence is not associated with mental illness. It has also shown that people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators. We’ve extensively covered this issue if you have any doubts or questions. Do not call into question a criminal’s mental health history unless it is specifically relevant to the story (beyond the criminal act). You cannot, in good faith, explain someone’s violent behavior as being “caused” by a mental illness — there’s just little to no data to establish such a causative relationship.

Stop the drive-by character assassination

It’s interesting, but if a person who also has been diagnosed with a mental illness breaks the law, we typically see lots of reporting about what their friends, family, and co-workers have to say. We see this far less frequently when it’s just a criminal. The narrative here is that there were “signs” or some sort of characteristics that would have warned others or made it obvious that this person was about to snap or commit a crime (see above about mental illness not being connected to violence). Journalists should dig deeper to understand the complexities of a person’s life, rather than assuming it can be summed up by a neighbor who has had two interactions in 10 years with the person. Also, while we don’t know the exact causes of mental illness, we know it’s not as simple as any single, one thing (such as the person’s upbringing, environment, childhood incidents, gene makeup, etc.).

Emphasize hope and treatment

So many articles I read about mental health and mental illness seem to focus on the negative and on the associated problems. Far fewer articles discuss positive outcomes and treatment, or focus on hope. Hope is what drives motivation to change, and without it, all the talk in the world about mental illness and mental health is lost. Most people who suffer from a mental illness never seek out treatment. These are things that can change with thoughtful reporting and writing.