Journalists should not just look for doom and gloom when choosing case studies, says Liz Nightingale of charity Rethink
Do you spend hours hunting for case studies? If you write about almost any aspect of modern life, you probably need someone to give your story human interest. Finding that person with the amazing story to tell helps make a good article great. At the severe mental illness charity, Rethink, we get at least one such request each week. They range from the bizarre — are your mood swings affected by the weather? — to the predictable: a women's magazine needs an attractive young woman with depression.
Rethink's media volunteer scheme has more than 200 members who have all offered to speak to the media about their experience of having a mental illness or caring for someone who does.
Recently, we asked media volunteers their views on media coverage of severe mental illness. Nearly 65 per cent agreed that it has had a negative effect on their quality of life.
As one person with a mental illness, who wanted to remain anonymous, put it, media coverage is "on the whole only given when someone dies by the hand of a mentally ill person. It ignores how the majority lead useful lives".
Many people said they were wary of mentioning their experience of mental illness to new acquaintances and neighbours.
Campaigner Georgie Wakefield, whose son Christian has schizophrenia, says: "When my son moved into his flat, 100 residents started a protest." The media may not have started the protest, but 40 per cent of the general public associate mental illness with violence and say their belief is based on the media.
Yet violence is not a symptom of mental illness, and the proportion of homicides committed by people with a psychiatric diagnosis has fallen steadily over the past 40 years. People with mental illness are six times more likely than the general public to be murdered and have the highest levels of unemployment among any disabled group.
A recent study for the Government anti-stigma campaign Shift found that coverage of common mental health problems such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) was much the same as other health problems. David Beckham's recent admission that he has OCD is a good example of this. Yet coverage of people with severe mental illness was seen in terms of "problem people" who were a threat to society, not "people with a problem".
Those that Rethink comes into contact with tell us time and again that media misrepresentation of mental illness is incredibly distressing and adds to the stigma that can be worse than the illness itself.
In the media volunteers' survey, 62 per cent said that the stigma that surrounds severe mental illness is mainly caused by the media. Wakefield says: "The stigma that we've experienced was the very reason that we took part in the BBC2 documentary My Family: Loving Christian. Viewers got to know Christian as an intelligent, kind young man who happened to have schizophrenia and was working hard to make something of his life."
Changing public attitudes is a huge task, but all the research evidence suggests that people like ‘you and me' talking about their experiences breaks down a fearful ‘them and us' mentality.
That is why Rethink invests so much time in supporting people to engage with the public through the media.
Media volunteers agree: two out of five people in our survey said that if they could change one thing about the way the media report mental health matters, they would increase the number of interviews with service users and carers.
Despite the numbers of media volunteers, it can still be very difficult to find people who want to be interviewed and whose experiences match the angle needed. This is particularly true for young people, a group which can be reluctant to speak out, and yet which journalists are usually most keen to interview. People can find it daunting to have a journalist ask them about their experience of severe mental illness, because it involves recalling painful and difficult memories. Media suspicion means media volunteers often long for the kind of copy approval normally only given to A-list celebrities.
Journalists surveyed for Shift identified this frustrating lack of people to interview as one of the reasons why coverage is imbalanced. Not surprisingly, a report by the charity Mental Health Media found that 62 per cent of journalists were most likely to contact a psychiatrist when considering a story on mental health.
Rethink offers positive solutions to this apparent impasse through providing prompt briefings and comments whenever possible, and through its media volunteer scheme. To help boost people's confidence in the interview process, Rethink has produced You and Media, a new interview guide. Written by experienced interviewees, it gives media volunteers a step-by-step guide to the interview process. It helps people focus on their key points so they can approach an interview feeling confident and prepared.
Rethink is not asking for idealistic political correctness. We want writers to base stories on hard facts and use mental health reporting guidelines. For example, campaigners who want better access to the breast cancer drug Herceptin are not described as ‘cancerous'.
Let's not misuse ‘schizophrenic' as an adjective for being in two minds.
Severe mental illness must earn its column inches like any other issue, but it need not be a depressing story of doom and gloom. News and features about conditions such as schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder (manic depression)
offer ample drama and human interest. Media volunteers have often triumphed over considerable adversity and occasionally tragedy, and are willing to take a public stand to inspire others.