Study suggests many news articles link mental health with crime

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With repeated news accounts of crimes committed by those with mental health issues, many attribute media coverage as a source for stigma surrounding those battling depression or bipolar disorder.

Even media advocates such as Jeffrey Dvorkin say that current reporting on mental health by the Canadian media could be improved to reduce stigmatizing and derogatory reporting.

Most journalists don’t have the “knowledge or understanding” when it comes to reporting on mental health, said Dvorkin, program director for the University of Toronto journalism program.1 copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copyInfographic by Cameron Perrier/Calgary Journal

“The issue for me is that journalists need to be more careful when they start describing mental illness,” he said.

The numbers

Dvorkin’s thoughts echo a recently published study in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry that examines the media’s relationship with mental health.

The study reviewed major Canadian newspaper articles over a six-year period from 2005 to 2010, to determine if newspaper content concerning mental health was changing over time.

“The thing that needs to be addressed is the inaccurate reporting,” said Robert Whitley, one of the lead researchers for the study from the Douglas Mental Health Institute.

The study found that 40 per cent of the articles reviewed related mental health to violence and crime. The study also noted that 83 per cent of articles during the study period failed to include a quote from someone with a mental health issue — which the study stated as “most concerning.” And 75 per cent did not have a quote from any sort of psychiatrist, social worker or other mental health worker.
“The more actual quotes from a person, the more it humanizes them,” Whitley said, adding that a voice would aid in people’s understanding.

The effects

Despite Dvorkin’s contention that Canadian media is overall “pretty careful,” the numbers seem to indicate otherwise.

Whitley’s study suggests that the media has a powerful effect on public views towards mental health, arguing that if the media continually associates mental health with danger and criminality, media consumers would begin to take on these views.

On the other hand, if the media were to associate recovery with mental health, the study suggests positive effects would likewise occur.

The study also noted that only 19 per cent of articles reviewed mentioned recovery or available therapies, which could “leave readers with the impression that a mental illness is an untreatable and incurable disorder.”

A 2009 Canadian Mental Health Association publication highlighted the challenges for people with mental health issues that the media can cause.

“Stigma due to negative media coverage impedes recovery, triggers discrimination and prejudice, and creates barriers to seeking and finding decent housing, employment, and education,” said the publication, entitled Stigma Matters: The Media’s Impact on Public Perceptions of Mental Illness.”

The publication also referred to a 2000 British report that indicated the direct relationship between negative mental health coverage and the effects on people living with a mental health issue.

That study found that more than half of respondents said poor mental health coverage had contributed negatively to their own mental health, with 34 per cent of respondents contending that the news coverage actually worsened their depression or anxiety.

What can be done?

Micheal Pietrus, director of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, works as a resource for the media encouraging them to report on more success stories.
He suggested that in doing so, the story is brought much closer to home for readers.

He also stressed that balanced reporting is key to accurate reporting.
“Such reporting entails talking to experts, and talking to people, as well, who have had a mental illness and can talk about their perspective,” he said.

CTV reporter Karen Owen, who deals with many stories surrounding mental health, is calling for more respectful reporting from the media.

“We just want to cover the realities of it. Mental illness is very common in society,” she said. “It is not a personality trait. It’s not a weakness. It is an illness, and as such should be covered respectfully.

“It’s the person first, then the illness.”

Owen’s view is similar to that of Dvorkin, who acknowledged that language is also an improvement to be made.

“Part of it is that the language in our society is still fairly loose. We refer to situations as ‘schizophrenic’ without understanding the clinical meaning of the term,” he said.

Despite the implications of Whitley’s study, Dvorkin maintains a positive outlook on Canadian media.

He said, “I think people are taking more care in making sure that we’re not demonizing a whole group of people.” 

Do you think mental health receives balanced news coverage? 

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