Inaccurate, insensitive or sensationalist media reports on mental illness and suicide can have significant consequences: research has shown that people who read negative articles about mental illness expressed more negative attitudes toward people with a mental illness.
Research has also shown that exposure to negative media stories had a direct effect on attitudes about people with mental illness, which was not altered by subsequent exposure to positive stories.
Most concerningly, a 1997 study found that media accounts of mental illness that instil fear have a greater influence on public opinion than direct contact with people who have a mental illness.
Examples of stigmatising media reporting
Mocking mental illness
Mocks or trivialises mental illness.
Misuse of medical terminology
Misuses medical terms which mock or trivialise mental illness.
Misuses medical terminology which perpetuates misconceptions about mental illness.
Uses the word ‘psycho’. Media reports frequently confuse ‘psychosis’ (which refers to psychotic mental illness) and ‘psychopath’ (which relates to extreme violence and anti social behaviour, not mental illness).
Implies that all mental illnesses are the same - the term ‘mental illness’ covers a wide range of symptoms, conditions, and effects on people’s lives.
Uses inappropriate and outdated terms such as ‘mental patient’, ‘nutter’, ‘lunatic’, ‘psycho’, ‘schizo’ and ‘mental institution’ - this language stigmatises mental illness and perpetuates discrimination.
Refers to someone with a mental illness as a ‘victim’, or is ‘suffering with’ or ‘afflicted by’ a mental illness.
Defines people by their mental illness: e.g. referring to a person as ‘a schizophrenic’ (alternatives include the person ‘has schizophrenia’, is ‘affected by mental illness’ or ‘lives with schizophrenia’).
Reports on tragedies involving untreated mental illness without context. This often contributes to community fear about people with a mental illness, if they are not reported within context. People receiving treatment for mental illnesses are no more violent or dangerous than anyone else; in fact they are more likely to be the victims of violence than the attackers.
Reports myths or misconceptions about mental illness.
Fails to secure informed consent from interviewees with a mental illness or exploits a person's vulnerability or ignorance of media practice.
Examples of harmful reporting about suicide
Method and location
Describes, displays or photographs the location or method of a suicide.
Repeatedly uses the term ‘suicide’ in a media reports – the word should be used sparingly (alternatives include ‘died by suicide’ or ‘took his/her own life’).
Uses the word ‘suicide’ in a headline – this can contribute to glamorising and normalising suicide and may attract vulnerable people to the story.
Uses the phrases ‘unsuccessful suicide’ or ‘failed suicide attempt’ - this places a value on the act (alternatives include ‘tried to end their life’ or ‘non-fatal’).
Sensationalises or glamorises suicide.
Glamorises celebrity suicide.
Lack of context
Suggests a suicide might be the result of a single factor or event – for example, a job loss or relationship breakdown. Many people who die by suicide have a mental disorder, a drug-related illness or other familial or social risk factors.
Positioning of the story
Gives stories about suicide prominent placement (e.g. front page of newspaper or magazine or lead items on TV or radio news).
Provides explicit details of method of death and/or repeatedly references the term suicide.