Mental Health and the Media: A Linguistic Overview

Today’s post comes courtesy of my good friend Keighley Perkins, a poet and academic extraordinaire who is due to start a PhD examining the Media’s representation of Mental Health. This is a subject that I am very close to, so I hope you enjoy Keighley’s article and consider supporting her PhD by donating to her crowdfunder campaign or finding her on her blog.

Mental health is an issue that has attracted a lot of debate across the ages. In 705 AD, these debates centred around the correct way to deal with individuals with mental health conditions in each geographical location. In the 1800s, these arguments drifted towards how individuals with mental health conditions should be treated by medical professionals. Today, we are becoming increasingly concerned with how individuals with mental health conditions are portrayed throughout society.

Research conducted by mental health organisations, such as B-eat (2010), have identified that journalists typically rely on sensationalist images when discussing mental health conditions, exaggerating behaviours and symptoms in an effort to attract a wider readership.

Although Mind and Time to Change have reported an improvement in the way mental health conditions are presented across the media, there are still significant issues that need addressing when discussing mental health in the media.

Mental Health in the Media:
In 1967, Foucault wrote that the prominent image held about individuals with mental health conditions throughout society was that they were mad, bad and dangerous. Unfortunately, not much has changed in the forty-eight years that has followed.

David Pilgrim, Professor of Health and Social Policy at the University of Liverpool, discovered that the common image being promoted about individuals with mental health conditions today is that of a homicidal madman who ‘explodes violently, erratically and inexplicably’ (Pilgrim, 2014). Although it sounds implausible, we only need to look at the reports on Andreas Lubitz to see those findings in bold print.

As highlighted at the start of this post, media organisations often employ shock factors to increase their readership. These shock factors, Pilgrim discovered, often take the form of violence when conditions related to mental health are being discussed.

Not only do media organisations place a disproportionate emphasis on violence when reporting on mental health conditions, Mind and Time to Change have noted the tendency for these organisations to emphasis the mental health condition itself throughout the report. Typically, individuals with mental health conditions are referred to as ‘a depressed/schizophrenic/bipolar’ person rather than by their name, creating the assumption that their mental health condition led to the behaviour being reported on.

While these findings appear to be damning, it is important to recognise that the media is not solely to blame for the images of mental health that pervade society. In fact, David Pilgrim stresses that it is important to recognise that the mass media does not operate in isolation. Instead, Pilgrim argues that the mass media should be seen more as an interaction between writer and audience rather than a one-way broadcasting of views. Seen in this light, society is just as much to blame for the way mental health is perceived and understood.

Why is this Style of Reporting an Issue?
Resorting to sensationalist journalism when reporting on mental health conditions is an issue as it impacts not only on those with some form of mental health condition, but also those who have little to no experience of these conditions at all.

The Impact on the General Public
There is significant evidence to suggest that the main source of information about mental health for the general public is actually the mass media, making it increasingly important to address the way mental health is presented in the mass media.

But why? Numerous mental health organisations argue that current reports on mental health conditions propagate social stereotypes of people with these conditions. Therefore, these stories promote fear and mistrust of anyone with a mental health condition.

These findings are especially problematic when we discover that these stereotypes do not actually reflect real life. Time to Change argue that individuals with mental health conditions are actually more likely to be victims of violence themselves than to be purveyors of it. Therefore, those individuals with mental health conditions who are violent are the exceptions to the rule.

When we take all of this research into consideration, it becomes clear just how much of an impact that the media can have on the perceptions of mental health throughout society. As B-eat argue, sensationalised portrayals of mental health distort society’s understandings about mental health conditions and what it is like to live with one.

The Impact on People with Mental Health Conditions
It should come as no surprise that negative portrayals of mental health has a significant impact on individuals with mental health conditions. In recent research, Mind discovered that negative media reports are a source of stress and distress for those with mental health conditions.

Experimental studies have demonstrated that a knowledge of an individual’s psychiatric history results in social rejection, suspicion and a loss of credibility that eventually demeans their identity and social status.

These responses are not only shared by society. Research by Erving Goffman (1963) appears to indicate that individuals often adopt similar attitudes that others hold about them, which significantly diminishes their self-worth.

How Do We Achieve More Sensitive Journalism?
Over recent years, organisations, such as Mind, Time to Change and The Samaritans, have released guidelines to assist media organisations achieve more accurate and sensitive portrayals of mental health in their reports.

As every organisation stresses, achieving accurate and sensitive reporting is purely a matter of selecting the right language as we can see below.

Where Do We Go From Here?
Over recent years, changes have been made to the way that mental health has been discussed in the media. However, as Sieff (2003) points out, these changes have only taken place with anxiety and depressive disorders.

Despite these limited changes, mental health organisations are optimistic about the changes that can come about with more accurate and sensitive reporting. Time to Change suggest that media outlets can actually be an effective tool in raising understanding and awareness about mental health conditions, making them a vital tool in tackling the stigma surrounding mental health.

B-eat (2010) ‘Media guidelines’ [Online source] Accessed 27.12.2014

Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. London: Penguin.

Mind (n.d.) ‘Violence and Mental Health’ [Online Source] Accessed 27.12.2014.

Mind (2013) ‘How to Report on Mental Health’ [online source] Accessed 27.12.2014.

Pilgrim, D. (2014) Key Concepts in Mental Health (3rd Edition) London: SAGE Publications.

Time to Change (n.d.) ‘Media Guidelines: News’ [Online source] Accessed 27.12.2014.

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One comment on “Mental Health and the Media: A Linguistic Overview
  1. Neil Ramsden says:

    ‘The media’ covers more than just newspapers, and I’d suggest it’s that wider media (film, TV, literature) that more influences how people perceive mental illness. Even if that’s through influencing the language journalists use when writing.
    I’d also expect those using insensitive language nowadays are the ‘lowest common denominator’ papers, but I might be wrong.
    The Telegraph example above – I guess the issue there is that the proximity of the girlfriend’s quote to the facts above make the two seem linked? But that’s probably how she gave the information in the interview. It is their job to write headlines people want to click on, but it’s also their job to reflect what is told to them accurately.

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