So much of the media stigmatizes mental health issues. Yet, media coverage in general has a direct impact on all our lives and even controls, subliminally, how we think. But in the field of mental health, it is clear that poor quality, essentially unbalanced, press coverage of mental health issues fuels stigma and actively reduces a sufferer’s quality of life.
So, what can we do about it?
First we need to gauge its effects on mental health sufferers themselves. The mental health charity Mind recently surveyed over five hundred people suffering from a range of mental illnesses, asking them how they felt about press coverage. Over seventy percent felt that coverage of mental health issues was usually unbalanced, decidedly unfair and very negative in its biased reporting. In turn, this had made sufferers feel more anxious and depressed as a direct result. Some had even felt suicidal, whilst others reported withdrawal symptoms coupled with feelings of isolation.
Next, we need to see how such negative reporting impacts on preconceptions of mental illness. In the survey by Mind, almost a quarter of sufferers reported that their neighbours had behaved in a hostile way towards them as a direct result of television and newspaper reports.
Clearly, however, we must not fall into the trap of lumping all media outlets into the same boat. The ones that came off the best was the regional media. This was considered to be far fairer and more balanced in its coverage. This seems somewhat surprising in that, generally, the national media is considered of better quality than the smaller, less-profitable, regional media. Could it be that regional reporters, having a smaller budget, have more time to do in-depth surveys and really get to the heart of how people are feeling? Are the cheaper national tabloids more concerned with snappy, confrontational headlines – ones that might go for more ‘psycho’ angles – to sell newspapers?
Is there, then, a way of using the media to actively reduce the stigma?
Having assessed the way the media can influence vast swathes of people, the trick would be to actively use it in a positive way. If properly harnessed, it could help to combat the stigma of mental illness, both for sufferers and carers alike. The Royal College of Psychiatrists recently amassed delegates from the British media in order to actually identify ways to achieve these goals. One was to steer away from the common portrayal of sufferers as being unpredictable, difficult to converse with and as being essentially ‘other’ from the ‘rest of us’.
Another way was to understand the rationale and methodology of the media in order to appreciate the role it plays in society. It is driven by a need to sell enjoyable stories to be read easily by busy people. That is why they use powerful headlines which at times may cause concern to psychiatrists and their patients.
Yes, we understand that TV producers need to achieve high ratings for programmes. Any psychiatrist wanting to use television to challenge the stigma of mental illness must, therefore, take account of this. Yes, we all object to the stereotypic portrayal of mental illness on television, but unfortunately these images are accepted by both programme-makers and viewers as common currency in our culture.
But, there is an alternative view. The belief that the title and content of the recent Channel 4 series, Psychos, served only to harm the interests of people with mental illness is the short-sighted and unimaginative view of a conservative profession. Instead, psychiatrists should try to view such programmes and the reaction that they generate as an important way of stimulating debate - not to mention welcome publicity for the programme.
So, what’s the best way forward?
Daytime television is particularly suited to psychosocial issues and is currently much underused as a way of reaching an influential audience with useful messages about misunderstanding and mental illness. We should harness the amazing power of television to reach a large audience by rapidly challenging adverse views about mental illness. If a programme offends, contact the programme-maker and congratulate him or her on an excellent piece of thought provoking work. Written complaint is a skill in its own right, so write your views while your emotions are still fresh.
Jeremy Laurance, health correspondent for The Independent newspaper, ironically observed that in all his years as a health writer, he had received more letters from angry dentists than psychiatrists. So, don’t be reticent. If the media is publishing negative comments about mental illness, tell them about it without delay.
The trick is to use what the media understands best. What are they looking for? Yes, a good story, colourful pictures, a powerful tale about triumphs. After all, what is the daily work of the psychiatrist, if not about such fascinating human stories?
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