Mental Health Media Coverage: Why Uncertainty is Better Than a Quick Click
When it comes to mental health communications and reporting, the long game is best. Scientific evidence and careful decision-making lead to better media stories—and better policies—than fear, anger, or stigma.
It can be tempting to use politicians’ controversial mannerisms, or the mental health records of mass shooting perpetrators, to show why mental illness matters. But doing so risks villainizing mental health care providers, condoning armchair diagnosis and creating skewed perceptions about what mental illness looks like.
Recently, Psychology Today pointed out that diagnosis of mental illness in public figures based on public information isn’t really diagnosis at all. True diagnosis is a tool for treatment—not a political weapon. The Columbia Journalism Review noted the irresponsibility of attributing Ian David Long’s shooting of 12 people in Thousand Oaks, CA, to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his service in the Marine Corps. PTSD tends to lead to withdrawal more than lashing out, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
Health communicators would be better off admitting there is a lot we don’t know about mental health. Julia Belluz, senior health correspondent for Vox, suggests adapting evidence-based medicine principles to improve coverage. Improving connections between scientists and reporters, she says, would serve readers.
And scientists say there are lots of gaps in our knowledge about the human brain—one of the reasons the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has just expanded funding for its BRAIN Initiative. “Brain diseases are some of the greatest mysteries in modern medicine,” NIH Director Francis S. Collins said in a press release.
Uncertainty introduces emotional risks and can feel like a violation of storytelling: find a beginning, middle and end, causal relationships and moral values for heroes and villains. But there is no easy answer when it comes to mental illness. Headlines crafted to pique curiosity should never be used to imply answers that don’t yet exist. The public relations discipline offers a unique route to solutions. It’s part of our job to think about reputations and relationships for ALL stakeholders in a story. We can do this by considering what’s best in the long term for everyone touched by coverage on mental illness.